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It's the end of the holidays. Still feeling uptight?

Worried woman

Many of us are so used to being on a treadmill year that it's often hard to get off, even during a supposedly relaxing holiday.

You've had a couple of weeks off and yet you still feel uptight/wound up. You dread the thought of returning to work and when you get there you feel like you've never been away. You feel:

  • Unhappy
  • Anxious
  • Moody (irritable, angry)
  • Overwhelmed
  • Just want it all to go away and stay in bed

If this is you, you might want to re-think your whole life - seriously. This kind of stress can be due to recent life events and if they rate highly enough, you could be at significant risk of having a health breakdown (according to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory).

You might think you don't deserve to be stressed since nothing major is happening to you (like a death in the family for example) but that doesn't mean you aren't still significantly stressed.

In our complex society a lifetime of striving to be successful, financially comfortable and socially acceptable (or even merely survive) can take an enormous toll on the mind, brain and body.

Holidays are supposed to be a remedy or a buffer against the stress of living and sometimes they are. Often though, holidays are spent trying to relax and not succeeding.

Often our mind and brain is not present and enjoying the holiday, but rather thinking and feeling about the unpleasant prospect of being back on the treadmill. Also there might be financial stress (perhaps self-employed people worry about not earning while on holiday and there is also the cost of the holiday itself).

Stress 101 part 1: Why we have stress

Businessman at a pdoium feeling performance stress

There's good stress and bad stress. Good stress is called Eustress and bad stress is called Dystress. We need Eustress to give us purpose, vitality and spark. It helps us to enjoy life and keep us motivated. It's the Dystress, or bad stress, that is the problem.

Our survival brain reacts to a stressor in the same way today as it did when we were tribal hunter/gatherers, when there were very big things to Dystress about; there really was a tiger or a bear in the mouth of the cave – the fire had gone out – the strange tribe was coming over the hill – you get my meaning. Otherwise our ancient ancestors were pretty much in a state of Eustress. Life was simple. Problems were few.

This is not the case today. In Western society we exist in a seething cauldron of stress; financial stress, job stress, relationship stress.

There's travel stress (our inner caveperson must be in a state of panic hurtling down the freeway at 100 kilometres an hour or flying in a plane 30 thousand feet above the earth) – and yet on a rational level we mostly take these things for granted; on top of that there is the adjustment to suddenly being In a totally different place and environment – another thing we think we should just 'get over' (although we at least do believe in jet lag).

Our ancient ancestors were travellers, but it took them a very long time to get to their destination, with plenty of time to adapt along the way.

There is also the stress of ill health; our ancient ancestors would have either recovered or died –not been subjected to a very long life full of invasive medical treatment often away from family and friends. Life was short but lived to the full and mostly in the present moment. Being unwell was very stressful for them.

Stress 101 part 2: What stress does to our body, brain and mind

Stressed couple arguing over their budget

Stress affects us all from individuals to towns/suburbs to cities to countries.

In Australia there are any number of statistics indicating the cost of excessive stress to individuals, the community, the workplace and the economy. They are brain-boggling. Here are just a few ...

  • 35 percent of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives (over one third).
  • Just over seven in ten Australians (72%) reported that current stress was having at least some impact on physical health, with almost one in five (17%) reporting that current stress was having a strong to very strong impact on physical health.
  • Over three in four (78%) young adults reported that current stress was having at least some impact on mental health with 26% reporting that their current stress was having a strong to very strong impact on mental health.
  • Financial issues (49%) and family issues (45%) remain the leading causes of stress amongst Australians.

-- Australian Psychological Society

  • Workplace stress is costing the economy 14.81 billion dollars a year.
  • Stress related presentation and absenteeism are costing Australian employers 10.11 billion dollars a year.
  • 3.2 days per year per worker are lost each year through workplace stress.

-- Medibank

Stress 101 part 3: Plan and implement a stress management strategy

This is not a list of stress management techniques (you'll find that here), this is about how to plan a strategy to manage your stress and how to implement it.

Having a strategy means more than meditating or doing a relaxation exercise. It sets out your intentions – what you intend to do about your stress, including some of the things on those lists of techniques.

When you are stressed, your ability to think, remember, make decisions and concentrate are compromised, so having a plan keeps you on track.

Using your senses to help cope with Lockdown

Love your teddy - @alinabuzunova via Twenty20

Our senses can over-function when you're stressed. Isolation induces stress because our survival brain perceives that you're isolated from personal social contact. It will then produce stress to try and make us either initiate social contact – or withdraw to the safest place. You might notice you are smelling or hearing things more acutely.

Soothing the senses can help. Here are some ways ...

The seven senses


Cuddle a soft blanket or stuffed animal. Here's one that is especially good if you are a crafty person. It's a touchpad, made of different textures to decrease anxiety and increase focus. Take a piece of material, board or cardboard scissors and glue. Have a rummage to find pieces of material with a range of textures. Think fur, satin, silk. Look on the garage for other textures, like sandpaper. Cut them into squares and attach them to the backing board. When you're stressed, bored, need something to refocus onto, or just need a break, close your eyes and concentrate on the different textures. This is a fun thing to do with children too.

Maintaining your focus in times of change

Stress is the enemy of concentration and focus. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have been exposed to constant stress. No surprise that we're having trouble with focus. Working from home has presented issues of distraction as children, pets and online shopping deliveries grab our attention away from whatever we're trying to concentrate on. However, they are not the main cause of lack of focus during stressful times.

Stress involved the "get up and go" hormone, Adrenaline. But before you can act to fight or flee, you need the energy to do that and that's where cortisol comes in.

Cortisol is the "let's give you the energy to get up and go" hormone that instructs the body to release glucose into the bloodstream. Cortisol also dampens your digestive system (who needs to waste energy digesting food when you need it to fight or run) and affects the immune system the reproductive system (not a good idea to reproduce when you're threatened) and growth processes.

What to do about feeling vulnerable

There's a vague unease, something is holding you back; you avoid activities and worry about things like money and security when your rational brain is trying to tell you there's nothing to worry about. You're feeling vulnerable – your survival brain detects there is a threat and wants you to take cover (hence the avoidance). You want to stay 'Up the back of the cave' where it's safe (more about this here).

Sometimes it's perfectly obvious to you why you're feeling vulnerable:

  • You're with an abusive partner
  • You're getting older and facing retirement and therefore financial worries and a challenge to your idea of yourself as a person (you won't have the validation of a profession/job/career)
  • Illness (your survival brain wants you take cover because you've lost strength and therefore the ability to fight or run away from the threat (fight/flight)
  • You have a sensitive personality – people are threatening in general.

(See more about the survival/emotional brain here).

How to get good at doing nothing and why it's good for you

When it comes to doing nothing, we seem to be separated into two different groups, those that are really good at it, monks and lazy teenagers for example, and those who are terrible at it, like high achievers and the overly conscientious.

I'm guessing that if you're reading this, you fall into the latter category. You've been guilted into over-working by the Protestant work ethic, even though we might not even know what that is. The Protestant work ethic says that hard work, self-discipline and being frugal will earn you a place in heaven, whereas lolling around in a haystack just passing the time will surely earn you a ticket to the 'bad place', which is the main reason we all work so hard these days.

But there's a good argument both philosophical and scientific, that says spending downtime doing nothing can be extremely good for you and make you more productive. The Dutch have a word for it, niksen.

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