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How full is your stress bucket?

STRESS - a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

We all experience some level of stress at certain points in our life… when we go for a job interview, take an exam or we’re working to meet a deadline. In these circumstances, it shows that we care and often that stress can help us to perform and get the job done.

However, 74% of people feel so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope (Mental Health Foundation and YouGov). As a result, 13.7 million working days are lost each year in the UK because of work-related stress, anxiety and depression, costing £28.3 billion yearly (NICE).

Stressed is now a word that more and more younger children use to decribe their feelings and in this current economic climate, it's something we're all very familiar with.

What happens when we experience stress?

When we are in a stressful situation, our brain triggers the fight or flight response, and this causes the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause our heart rate to increase, our blood pressure to rise, muscles to become tense and a shortness of breath.

In this state we are more alert, have a decreased sensitivity to pain, and blood rushes away from our digestive system, which can cause a lack of appetite, upset stomach and stomach cramps. We experience all of these changes in the hope that we can challenge the threat (fight) or escape to safety (flight). In fact, from an evolutionary perspective experiencing stress is an important part of human survival as it enables people to react quickly and decisively when faced with challenging or dangerous situations.

However, often the stressful situations that we encounter nowadays are nowhere near a life or death type of situation that our caveman ancestors would have experienced.

Chronic stress is impacting our sleep, relationships, health and performance. It puts pressure on our relationships, causes a whole host of health issues including anxiety and depression. It can also lead us carry out unhealthy coping behaviours, like smoking or consuming too much alcohol.

It's important to understand how stress builds up and how it impacts us.

In the work I do, we refer to everyone as having a metaphorical ‘stress bucket.’ Everyone has one, whether they are the calmest person alive or a walking emotional wreck (these people probably have ‘stress skips’ rather than buckets). And everyday stresses go into that bucket.

Your child refuses to get ready on time so you are late for work… your husband leaves his dirty clothes on the floor despite you asking him a million times to put them in the wash basket (hmm..just me?) or your unreasonable boss making another demand…

In fact, it doesn’t necessarily matter what goes in your stress bucket but how often and how much.

How do we empty our stress buckets?

Now we naturally empty our stress bucket every night when we experience REM (rapid eye movement) sleep . It is in this sleep state that we have most of our dreams and we can regulate our emotions and consolidate memories.

In an ideal world, our bucket will empty over night and we’ll wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face another day.

However, this isn’t the case for many people.

The Sleep-Stress Cycle

Chronic stress impacts our internal clock that tells our body when it is time to sleep and when it is time to be alert. When we are experiencing high levels of stress during the day, then we’re more likely to struggle to fall asleep and get quality sleep that night.

Our inability to fall asleep following a stressful event can be due to the brain’s reaction to thinking that there is still a potential threat out there. Our brain continues to be in fight or flight mode and the physiological symptoms we experience make it difficult to relax and fall asleep.

If we are not getting sufficient quality sleep then our brain will not be able to process the stresses from the day before and we wake up with them still in our stress bucket. Then we deal with another stressful day and our bucket continues to fill.

Eventually it will overflow and that’s when we’re then working from a part of our brain known as the primitive brain and we find ourselves constantly in that fight or flight mode.

When we’re in this state our emotions are heightened and we're more likely to get stressed over little things and it becomes a vicious cycle!

So how can we empty our buckets?

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s really important to prioritise your sleep and practise good sleep hygiene. Getting enough sleep and creating a comfortable sleep environment are vital.

Here are a couple of things you can try:

  • Limit the amount of caffeine you have after midday – even if you think you can still sleep after drinking copious amounts of caffeine, you won’t be getting quality sleep.

  • Create a comfortable sleep environment – sleeping in a cool, quiet and dark room will improve your sleep. Black out blinds are a good idea as they eliminate light from outside and signal to your brain that it is time to sleep.

  • Avoid electronic devices at least 2 hours before bed – the blue light that is emitted from the devices plays havoc on our circadian rhythm which helps regulate when we feel awake or tired. If you go on your device too close to bedtime then your brain will get the message that it is still daytime and delay sending signals to your body that it is time to sleep.

  • Have a warm shower or bath before bed – as we get closer to bedtime our body temperature decreases and melatonin increases making us feel sleepy. The warm bath or shower will not only make us feel relax but also speed up this process.

  • Journal - do a brain dump to get anything off your chest or write down anything you need to remember for the following day so you no longer need to worry about it.

  • Read - pick something easy to read and not too exciting as we don’t want your adrenaline levels to rise.

  • Listen to a guided relaxation - these are great for helping you to relax and unwind. Feel free to mesage me if you would like a copy of my sleep audio.

If it feels too overwhelming to do all these things then just pick one or two to start with (I'd recommend limiting the use of devices for bed as a good starting point). It's easier to change or add a new habit when do them little and often.

If you are looking for a gentle and effective way of managing your stress then get in touch. In just a couple of sessions, Solution Focused Hypnotherapy can help you empty your full stress bucket and restrict what goes in. I can help you get your sleeping back on track so you can start your day in the best way.


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