What is Stress?
People feel stressed when they can no longer cope with the sort of physical, mental or emotional pressures that occur in normal everyday life. In other words, these stressors no longer help to keep you motivated and ‘on your toes.’ They actually make you feel ill.
Stress is a natural part of everyday life and not all stress is negative. When people have health problems this can create new stresses, and they may find they are less able to tolerate stress levels the way they used to.
You can think of stress as anything that disturbs your status quo - either physically or mentally. When this occurs your body will react to try to restore the balance and this may cause a variety of symptoms. Different people respond to stress in different ways.
Many of the signs of stress have much in common with the symptoms of ME/CFS, but also with other long term medical conditions.
Besides ‘feeling stressed’ common signs and symptoms include:
• Loss of concentration and difficulty making decisions
• Feeling tense or irritable and not being able to relax
• Increased blood pressure and heart rate with palpitations
• Muscle tension and headaches
• Increased sweating or clammy hands
• Sleep disturbance and restlessness
• Nausea, dry mouth, ‘butterflies’ in stomach
• Rapid or shallow breathing
The body’s general reaction to stress
The body’s reaction to stress is dependent on two things. Firstly, an individual’s ability to cope with stress (including how they perceive it) and, secondly, whether the stress is ‘short-term’ or ‘long-term’ (chronic).
If the body is reacting to short-term stress then we are looking at a reflex action commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. The body releases adrenaline and cortisol, which allow your body to carry out the physical response required, i.e. to narrowly avoid an accident. During and immediately after you may feel tense, sweaty, have a dry mouth, racing heart and quick breathing but once this immediate stress is gone the body returns to its natural state.
If the body is reacting to long-term stress then the body can be continuously alert and the original stress indicators such as racing heart, dry mouth etc. may be replaced by persistent headaches, muscle tension, high blood pressure, IBS, indigestion, emotional sensitivity and weakened immune system. Here the body finds it difficult to return to it’s natural state.
Therefore, recognising stressful situations and learning how to avoid or deal with stress can be an important part in managing ME/CFS.
What can be done about Stress?
1. Recognise the triggers.
2. Relaxation (see last section). De-clutter your mind with pleasant words or thoughts.
3. Accepting and changing. Ensure that you have a quality of life by taking control; learn to change what you can and accept what you cannot. You cannot change the fact that you have ME/CFS but you can change how you think and live in order to manage it.
4. Communicate effectively. Be assertive about your needs, talk them through and learn to say no. Remember you have a choice about how to respond.
5. Move on. Negative thoughts and feelings take up emotional energy, energy that you could do with. Try to understand a situation but then let go of it.
6. Is there another way of looking at the situation? What would a friend say? What’s the worse that can happen? If you cannot change the situation, can you change the way you think about it?
7. Ask someone for help or advice. Talk to someone. Delegate.
8. Try to address sleep disturbance as this can exacerbate stress
9. What are your options to help yourself? What are the pros and cons of each one? Select the best option, take action and then review.
10. Do one thing at a time and give yourself time to do those things. Prioritise, break tasks down into manageable chunks and make them less overwhelming. Celebrate tasks you have completed.
11. Do not feel guilty about what you cannot do. Understand that if you could do it, you would. Do not feel guilty about delegating or not completing tasks as quickly as you might like.
12. Manage your time in order to get things done whilst building in your rest breaks. Creative hobbies can help reduce stress levels provided they are manageable.
13. Recognise when you are tired and have reached your limits. Do not feel guilty when you need to rest but give yourself permission to do this.
14. Be kind to yourself. If you do not look after yourself first you are less likely to be able to look after others!
15. Sense of humour. Laughter is an excellent way to banish stress and general blues.
16. Prioritise: What do you really need to do now? Include things you enjoy.
17. Expectations. Be realistic about what you can achieve and what others can help you with. High standards may need to be compromised. Your energy levels may have changed but your expectations of yourself may not have changed with them.
18. Give yourself credit and value yourself for who you are.
19. See sources of information and support in our Information and Resources pack.