Thursday, 7 April 2016

It's April: happy stress awareness month everyone!

Guest post by Dr Emily Henderson, Lecturer in Knowledge Exchange in Public Health and Research Fellow in Complex Systems at Durham University

April is stress awareness month. Why, you may ask? Maybe because it’s tax season. Or because parents have to look after their children during the Easter holidays. Or perhaps it’s to help recover from all the April Fools’ Day jokes, like the poor guy in Canada this year who reportedly collapsed from heart palpitations after his work colleagues convinced him he had to cut his holiday short to meet a deadline that had been moved forward.

Whatever the reason, it is happening this month. The Health Resource Network has deemed it so. And we at Fuse think it is a good opportunity to raise awareness about stress.

But I am already aware that I’m stressed
, I can virtually hear you reply. Fair enough. Nearly half of UK adults report feeling stressed every day or every few days, according to the Mental Health Foundation. With budget cuts, job insecurity and global crises, just to begin with, we all are stressed.
So what am I to do about it? We all have our coping strategies, which are biologically understood responses that humans and animals alike have evolved. Chimpanzees are known to groom each other to cope with threats and re-establish bonds. Stress and suffering are human universals. We can measure stress via stress hormones like cortisol, and there are physiological and some behavioural responses we can predict, like the ‘fight or flight’ response. But some behaviours are not predictable, and do not always make (immediate) sense. For example, Hilary Graham’s ethnographies of low-income single mothers showed us that, paradoxically, smoking was used to cope with suffering and thus improve wellbeing.

You, dear reader, have asked so many good questions up to this point, I have one for you: Considering the ‘causes of the causes’ of ill health, is the actual problem that these women smoked or is it the disadvantage they experienced? We have no choice but to cope in our own ways with stress. After trial and error, I know better now what I need to get perspective and find stillness inside. I am addicted to the oxygen highs I get through practicing yoga, and require connection with nature and people. But as a native to San Francisco, I am under cultural obligations to indulge in wine. Nobody is perfect. And nor should we ever aspire to this elusive ideal. Indeed, evidence for the health benefits of practicing compassion - either compassion for ourselves or for others - is growing. Beyond changing our behaviours, we must change the structures and systems that generate stress.

Spring is actually not about chocolate bunnies, but about renewal. So this April, in addition to trying new ways to cope with stress (see the Huffington Posts compilation of articles for Stress Awareness month, or NHS Choices mindfulness article), maybe get involved in a cause that seeks to alleviate suffering.

Please check out the Stress, Health and Wellbeing special interest group that I run through the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University.

Photo credits

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant blog, Emily. Love the part about having compassion for ourselves and others :-) oh, and the wine comment!