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We’ve just come to the end of Stress Awareness Week. This international event started in 2018 to raise awareness of the effects of stress and help find ways to prevent it. Given that stress is one of the biggest threats to health in modern society, raising awareness of the issues that surround it is much needed.

Stress is a natural reaction to one or more of our innate needs not being met, and to the pressure or threat that results from that. We all know what stress feels like and, while humans are built to be able to withstand certain amounts of it, prolonged periods or excessive levels of stress can be incredibly damaging to our health, causing physiological as well as emotional difficulties that can have serious consequences.

More and more of us are suffering from stress. Data shows that children are now experiencing high and increasing levels of stress, the causes of which they themselves attribute to feeling they are not being heard, conflict in the family home, and family poverty. Evidence shows that exposure to excessive stress in childhood permanently affects the brain and can delay the progress of puberty. For all of us, it’s important to acknowledge the stress in our lives and ensure that we manage it well.

So, in thinking about addressing the stress that is present in your life right now, is it best to look at the symptoms or the cause?

There are techniques that can really help with the symptoms, and we’ll discuss those later, but the existence of symptoms in the first place demonstrates there is an underlying issue that needs to be dealt with. If your needs are not being met, you can end up feeling you only have limited control over your life and overwhelmed by the pressures placed on you by external events or internal worries. For example, the desire for emotional connection is a fundamental human need. We are social animals and crave attention (another innate need) from those to whom we feel close and connected. Without this, especially over a prolonged period, we can start to feel emotionally deprived, which can lead to loneliness, an increasing cause of stress in Western societies. And even if our innate need to feel that life has meaning and purpose is being met in other ways, this can also be compromised by our need for emotional connection not being met.

Addressing the symptoms of this can help in the short term but, to relieve the symptoms of this kind of need not being met, the most effective solution is to resolve the issue itself. World events of the last 18 months have made emotional connection more and more difficult. Social distancing has not only meant having to remain physically separate from those we know and love, but it has also compromised our opportunities to meet new people. The fact that we move around a lot more than we used to, resulting in a breaking of connections that are physically nearby, has meant increased pressures on our emotional connections, too. Sometimes this difficulty is often caused by nothing more than circumstances, such as moving to a new city for work but, for some, making and maintaining platonic and romantic relationships is a persistent problem which can, in turn, affect feelings of confidence and increase levels of stress.

What does this mean for how we make use of our innate resources? If you’re experiencing a lack of emotional connection in your life, it can be tempting to think you are different from other people in some way, and your imagination can lead you to fantasise that everyone else has a surfeit of close relationships. But we are all born with the innate ability to connect to other humans. One of the greatest resources at our disposal for this is rapport. We use rapport by mimicking (or mirroring) other people’s behaviour and gravitating towards people who we feel are already similar to us. We also naturally understand the kinds of behaviours that are appropriate in different circumstances and with different people. We do most of this without conscious thought, because these are our natural behaviours and responses as human beings.

This is also the case when we come to look at our other innate needs and the associated resources we might use to help relieve the stress related to needs not being met. We might use a combination of rational thinking and imagination to address our innate need for security, for example, and the resources of pattern matching and memory to ensure our innate needs for attention or respect are met.

Addressing needs can sometimes take time and so, in the meantime, it can be useful to have some techniques at your disposal to help deal with the symptoms of the stress you’re experiencing. One of the most effective techniques to help reduce the symptoms of stress is 7-11 breathing. Practising this for 10-15 minutes each day will help relieve your symptoms of stress and improve your ability to think clearly:

  • Breathe in using your diaphragm, so that your belly pushes out as you breathe in. Count up to 7 while breathing in. You don’t have to breathe particularly slowly. Choose a counting speed which suits your own lungs.
  • Breathe out to the count of 11. The important thing is to count at the same speed for both in and out breaths.
  • It may seem a little difficult at first, but this is normal. You will need to practice every day for a few days before it gets easier. When you can keep it up (without forgetting to count) for at least 10 minutes continuously, you will start to feel the benefits.

Over the last week, we have been posting this and other techniques for stress management on our Instagram stories. You can find those at the top of our profile, where you’ll also find links to other resources.

We’d love to start a conversation about stress. What does stress means to you? What are your experiences of stress? Has the experience of the last 18 months increased or decreased your levels of stress? How do you manage your stress? Please post your comments below.

Anxiety Freedom Cards can help you to reduce stress and anxiety.