Stress is an essential part of life. Historically, it was our body’s way of enabling us in the face of danger, to fight, run from the scene or freezer. This biological mechanism remains within us today prompting us unconsciously to react quickly in the face of threat to ensure our survival.

Our nervous systems have not evolved to distinguish between the presence of danger prompting us to shift gear into doing (stress) mode and the overwhelm caused by schools and work-places that ask too much, our non-stop exposure to screens, technology and leisure time that prompts us to do, do, do. We have forgotten how to relax. The outcome is chronic stress and an increasing trend towards burnout.

Here's some tips on how to recognise stress in your body and what to do about it: 

The signs of stress

  • Stress is always accompanied by a change in the way we breathe. Our breath re-homes itself in our chest, leaving vacant the enormous space into which we can breathe in our abdomen. We take shorter breaths and breathe more quickly. This increases our heart rate, which in turn raises our blood pressure. 
  • Our energy shifts upward and we live in our heads, disconnected from the earth and unaware of what is happening in or bodies. The sensations in our bodies, which are our emotions alerting us to our needs, become frightening and we stay in our heads afraid that feeling our emotions will cause us harm. We shift from an emotional landscape of hope to one of fear. 
  • Responding to the message ‘we are under attack’, the subsystems of our body step into action and we begin to produce two of the leading stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. 
  • We experience tension in our minds and bodies and lose concentration. We focus on the past and future and develop knots in our shoulders, tension headaches and pain in our neck and lower back. Operating on automatic pilot, we taste, hear, see, smell and feel less. Joy eludes us as we can no longer see the beauty that surrounds us. 
  • In relationships we react by withdrawing and not speaking our truth or getting angry and saying things we don’t really mean. We feel less connected to ourselves, and the world around us. Our sense of ourselves as creative beings diminishes. 
  • Our immunity decreases and we fall sick more easily. Every aspect of our wellbeing falls out of synch – mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. We are left feeling discontented with the sense that there must be more to life.

What you can do to help yourself

  • Establish a routine – go to bed at the same time every weekday night, aiming to fall asleep no later than 11. For the 90 minutes before you want to fall asleep switch off all your devices and engage only in activities that invite relaxation. 
  • Emptying out – if you are someone who awakes in the night and replays the events of your day write them down. Write a list of the unfinished business of your day so that what you will awake to tomorrow sits outside of you, rather than simply in your head. 
  • Be regular – eat your meals at the same time each day, minimise snacking and don’t skip meals. Keep hydrated and make sure you drink plenty of water. 
  • Connect with your environment – take time to inhale fresh air and spend time in green spaces. Go for a walk and seek at least 20 minutes of exposure to daylight. Make contact with anything in your environment that connects you. This includes other people and may include listening to music, drawing or writing a journal. 
  • Breathe – last and most importantly, get still and breathe. Developing an accurate perception of your breath and its role in supporting every aspect of your wellbeing, is the foundation of self-care. Place your feet firmly on the floor so you can feel yourself connected to the earth. Place your hand on your tummy and becoming aware of your internal voice, spend a few moments connecting with your senses. One by one, say inside yourself, ‘hello sounds, smells, taste, air’ and feel the touch of your own hand. With each inhalation invite your breath to slow down so it enters and leaves your nose like a trickle of water, filling the space inside your abdomen. Count each breath, so if you start with a count of one in and out, you can day-by-day increase this to two, then three ... With daily practice of two breathing sessions of ten minutes a day, befriending and lengthening your breath throughout the day you will gradually begin to remember your capacity to consciously relax and support your own inner peace.

BACP member Dawnie Browne, who runs Breathe4Wellbeing, trained in a variety of humanistic approaches. Where relevant in her counselling practice she uses Gestalt Therapy as it enables clients to connect with the resources of mind and body to live to their full potential. She runs also incorporates BreathPerception® for relaxation and stress reduction.