Every year, one in four adults in the UK will suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition, most commonly depression or anxiety. Although not a cause of mental ill health per se, stress and a poor work-life balance place individuals at greater risk and can exacerbate any difficulties that someone is already experiencing. Workers in emotionally taxing professions such as healthcare, or those who work variable and unsociable shift patterns, are especially likely to be diagnosed with poor mental health. So, if you have a full-time job and are trying to balance your work with a family, social life, and all the other demands of modern living, what can you do to help safeguard your mental health?
Stress is a leading contributor to poor mental health. Far from being “all in the mind”, stress is a very real physical condition. When we experience stress, the body releases increased quantities of the hormone cortisol. In small amounts, and for short periods of time, cortisol can be beneficial. Human beings evolved on the plains of Africa, where cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones were beneficial in helping us run away from lions and other animals that would otherwise have had us for lunch. However, over long periods, high cortisol levels can lead to hypertension, heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, and anxiety. Stress is also a key risk factor for depression, psychosis, and schizophrenia.
Reading that last paragraph has probably been enough to increase your stress levels all by itself! So, what can you do to reduce the amount of stress in your life? Leading mental health charity, Mental Health First Aid England provide a free resource on their website called the “Stress Container.” This simple model can help you to identify the areas of your life – whether they’re related to work, money, family or elsewhere – which are causing you stress.
Once you’ve identified your stress factors, you can begin to plan how to deal with them. That could mean talking to your line manager about stressful issues at work, or perhaps having a conversation with your partner or family about how they can help you reduce stress at home.
Managing stress when it does happen
However hard we try to reduce the sources of stress in our lives, we are all going to experience stress from time to time. So, when you’re up against it in the office, or there’s just a lot going on in life, here are a few things you might like to try to help manage your stress.
Science is increasingly showing us that exercise is a fantastic tool for managing stress and improving your mental health. Physical and mental health are connected, so eating well and taking regular exercise are very helpful in improving mood and lowering stress. If you can find something that you enjoy, and you can do it regularly, then make the time for it.
Take some “me time”
When we’re busy at work, it can be tempting to work that little bit of overtime, skimp on lunchtimes and breaks, and generally work harder to get the job done. The reality is, there’s nothing worse for your mental health than not taking any time for yourself. Make sure that, every single day, you set aside time to do something you enjoy, and that will make you feel good. This doesn’t have to be anything complicated or expensive – curling up on the sofa with a hot chocolate and a good book is perfect. Positive emotions, though, help to build a buffer against stress, so take some time to create those happy moments.
Learn something new
Many people find great satisfaction in learning a new skill or hobby. Maybe you’ve always wanted to play the guitar, take up painting, or learn a new language? Take a look around and see what opportunities are available near you. Most further education colleges offer community classes, many of which are free.
Share how you’re feeling
It’s OK to ask for help and support. Everyone has up days and down days, and it really is true that talking a problem through with a friend, colleague, or loved one can help.
Be organised enough to switch off
When you’re not at work, you’re not at work. At the end of your shift or working day, take five minutes to reply to any emails, tidy your desk or locker, and put away your equipment. Then, when you walk out of the door, switch off. Turn off your phone, stop checking your emails, and get your mind out of “work mode” and ready to relax. After all, you’ve been working hard all day, and you’re not paid to spend your evenings and weekends working too.
Following these tips will be enough for many people to begin to address the sources of stress in their lives. However, if you’re struggling and want to talk, there’s help out there for you. You can call Samaritans 24/7 on 116 123, or email [email protected], contact your GP, call NHS 111 for advice or, in an emergency, visit your local A&E department and ask to speak to the Mental Health Crisis Team.