Less stress, more joy: Easy ways to calm your worries

Whether it’s money worries or nerves about an upcoming work presentation, we all experience stress. Here are some simple ways to ease the tension.

Stress is very much a part of life and affects us all. 

According to the Australian Psychological Society, it is often described as feeling tense, wound-up, worried and overloaded, and occurs when we face a situation we feel we can’t cope with. 

It’s usually experienced short-term, and it’s not all bad – it can give you a boost to tackle that nerve-racking presentation or blast through the to-do list to meet a looming deadline.  

But too much stress can affect both our mental and physical health. 

Research links stress to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and chronic fatigue. 

Long-term stress that isn’t managed or treated can result in mental health conditions including anxiety and depression.

In 2020-21, 15 per cent of Australians aged 16-85 experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Meanwhile, a 2015 survey by the APS revealed 72 per cent of Australians felt that stress affected their physical health, and 64 per cent their mental health. 

Key facts about stress

Short-term stress is known as acute stress (think sitting an exam) and long-term stress is known as chronic stress (think loneliness or relationship problems), the APS explains. 

Physical symptoms of chronic stress include high blood pressure, heart palpitations, insomnia and diarrhoea.

Psychological symptoms include anxiety, worry, tearfulness, irritability and feeling overwhelmed.

Dr Rachel Hogg from Charles Sturt University’s School of Psychology says not all stress is from negative events. 

Stress can also come from positive events such as getting married or being promoted at work.

“Change and points of transition in our lives are often quite significant stressors, as our brains are hardwired for safety — they are trying to protect us,” Dr Hogg says.

What might trigger stress?

Research from Medibank in 2022 found the top stressor for Australians was finances and money, followed by personal health, relationships, the pandemic in general, work, reading the news and scrolling through social media.

Many of us will not be surprised that money worries top the list, with cost of living pressures affecting our lifestyles for some time.

In late 2022, Australian National University research revealed 25 per cent of Australians were finding it difficult to manage on their current income.

The research found that financial stress was highest in Australia’s lowest-income bracket, where more than one in two people said they were experiencing financial stress, compared to only 5 per cent in the highest income bracket. 

Dr Hogg notes anyone whose life conditions feature a lack of control and a high sense of uncertainty is likely to have increased stress.

“A lower socioeconomic status is a major precursor to suffering with longer term stress. 

You are more likely to be the victim of a crime and you are living with consistent levels of uncertainty,” she says.

For many people, a lack of time is another stress pressure point.

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey asked more than 17,000 Australians in 2019 how often they felt rushed or pressed for time.

It found about a third felt under chronic time stress, meaning there wasn’t enough time to do the tasks that needed doing, and that women generally felt more rushed for time than men. 

Why we stress about work

There are not many of us who haven’t felt stressed at work at some point in our lives.

Professor Maureen Dollard from the University of South Australia’s Psychosocial Safety Climate Global Observatory is an expert in the field of workplace stress.

“Work stress is an adverse feeling that you get when the demands of the job exceed your resources to carry out the tasks that are before you,” Prof Dollard explains. 

She says in her field, she has seen teams that are exposed to higher levels of demands experience higher levels of exhaustion, depression and distress when compared to teams with fewer demands.

“This indicates that the experience of stress is beyond individual perceptions and stressors are commonly experienced in teams and organisations.”

Dr Hogg says a lot of the language around stress is about how individuals can respond effectively to their stressors, rather than what may be causing the stress, such as excessive work hours or job insecurity.

“This can create a second layer of stress,” she notes. 

“This idea that stress is subjective, and what really matters is how you think about it, can often take us away from thinking about the context in which people are experiencing stressors.”

Best ways to stress less

Stress may be unavoidable but various strategies could help you handle it.

Firstly you need to recognise when you are feeling stressed, Dr Hogg says.

“Being able to recognise that your body is holding tension is often the first step in moving towards reducing that tension,” she says.

“And the reason that is so important is because when we are in a state of heightened stress, we often become quite disconnected. 

“People often disassociate a little bit – they’re not really very aware of what’s happening in their body – and consequently they’re not necessarily able to recognise their own stress response.”

A healthy diet, exercise and sleep can also help. 

Consider setting time aside for a daily recreational activity and going to bed at the same time each night. 

The Black Dog Institute has many hints on avoiding harmful stress. 

These include keeping a list of priorities — just be sure to make the tasks possible, prioritise them in order of importance and tick them off when done.

It also suggests making a list of stressful situations and noting one or two ways you could try to reduce the stress for each situation. 

Having people that you can lean on for support when you are stressed can also be a huge help, Dr Hogg says.

 “I think the single biggest factor in regulating our nervous system and responding effectively to stress is co-regulation – or, in broader terms, social support,” she says.

Where to get help for stress

If you feel your stress is prolonged, extensive or affecting your ability to enjoy life, a psychologist may be able to help. 

Visit psychology.org.au or phone 1800 333 497 to find a psychologist near you, or ask your GP for a referral.

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Written by Janet Stone.