Total Pageviews

Thursday, 23 March 2017

What is Stress and How Can You Deal With It?

About Stress

Stress is not the same as pressure or challenge – it's when our mechanisms to cope with a situation are exceeded.  It's perfectly possible to have pressure or challenge and do well out of it.  If you've got an achievable deadline, your adrenaline will flow and you may be energised to do better as a result.  However, expressions such as “a healthy degree of stress is good” should be challenged, and I feel they are actually a sloppy use of language where it would be better to use a different form of words.  To illustrate this: we wouldn't say that a bridge under stress is a good thing, because this would suggest that it had been put under the pressure of more traffic than it was designed to handle, which would be a dangerous thing, possibly leading to disaster.  To continue this analogy, we can think of lorries on the bridge as heavy stressors (bullying, relationship issues, bereavement, excessive workload over a long period) and cars as smaller ones (traffic jams, someone being rude or snappy with us, rain on a day when you relied on sunshine).  The bridge can only manage to hold so much weight before it starts to wobble and then collapse.  So it is with people.  Stress is an abnormal not a normal load – it is damaging for a bridge; for humans it's bad for the body, mind and soul.  Stress is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign that you have been strong for too long – in the example of the bridge, engineers should have spotted that the bridge was close to its capacity for strain and acted in a appropriate manner; in your life, either yourself or others could and should have changed something before it got this far.

Stress can build up over a period of time in a gradual way until we find we reach overload, or one or two really bad events in close succession can immediately take us into a feeling of overload.  

A mixture of personal and background stress can be very potent adding to personal stressors, we live in what might easily be described as the Age of Anxiety.  Modern life has many troubles, particularly perhaps for younger people who may come to see current issues stretching out indefinitely into the future.  It seems impossible to switch on our televisions without hearing about some huge uncertainty, disaster or problem. The last ten years seem to have had an increasing amount of troublesome issues: banking crashes, political upheaval and polarised opinion, famine, terrorism, global warming and extreme weather, species extinction, the uncertainties of Brexit etc.  Without a doubt, workplaces have become more difficult, with efficiency pressures in these financially limited times encouraging managers to adopt increasingly task-orientated methods rather than also considering (as past management styles seemed to do) the needs of the team and the individual. Apparently we live in the most held down wages for many decades, housing is ridiculously expensive, and many companies seem to want their staff to do more in less time whilst demanding their loyalty and giving very little of that back in return.  In an employer's market, the psychological welfare of staff is a low priority –company literature may state it as a priority but it is usually obvious that this is just window dressing to lull a false sense of security and to look impressive to outsiders or would be employees.  With all this, it's no wonder the world feels like a stressful place before we even add our own stuff into the mix. 

You may be thinking that there are people who are more stressed (or less stressed) than you.  This is almost certainly true, but it gets us nowhere. Differences in stress are not just about how different people are able to deal with the common things they are facing, but also about how one person's ability to deal with stress can differ wildly at different times because of other factors recent events, personal relationships, environment, health and energy levels. It's also true that many people also add to their own stressors by being overly perfectionist or by fearing failure or success, but that is rarely the only contributing factor.

Reactions to Stress
Some common reactions can be:
• Sweating
• Tight chest
• Increased pulse
• Physical tension
• Tummy troubles
• Sleep issues
• Headaches
• Irritability
• Anger
• Lack of libido
• Skin conditions
• Social withdrawal

These issues can affect different people with different intensities and there's also the phenomenon of being stressed about being stressed, so that the stress feeds on itself and spirals upwards.

What can we do about stress?

When you are stressed it's important to choose to do things.  You may well not feel like doing anything much at all, but you should do things anyway, because it's only by moving in a  different direction that you can change things for the better.  If there are things you enjoy doing but have stopped due to stress then you should probably try to do them again. There are many ways of coping with stress, and not all of them will be relevant or a good choice for everyone.  Nonetheless, some of the ideas below may help and some of them may be things you've done but given up on or found hard in stressful times:

Use exercise to relieve tension –but don't overdo it to start with
Learn your triggers and avoid them – for instance, if certain people or situations set you off, avoid them when it's reasonable to do so
Reframe the situation (if that is possible) – could there be  opportunity as well as difficulty ahead?
Concentrate on positive things more than negative ones
Consider the bigger picture – which might be wholly different from the close-focus one
Try to laugh – watching a favourite comedy can be great for relieving tension
Get more sleep  – if this is difficult try to take naps when possible
Have more physical intimacy, which is a great stress reliever (and sleep inducer)
Eat and drink more wisely – drink alcohol sparingly, avoid too much caffeine
Take time out
Treat yourself
Practice breathing slowly
Talk to someone you trust about what's troubling you
Ask for a long hug from someone who will be happy to oblige
Look at images of a favourite place or person
Listen to soothing music
Practise mindfulness – being in the moment no matter what you are doing
Find more time for a hobby or start one you've always wanted to
Work smarter not harder
Learn to say "no" when appropriate
Ask for help
Use a positive mantra to repeat in your head when entering a stressful situation
for instance, "I will be okay"
Do something repetitive – for instance, painting a fence can be very therapeutic if you are stressed
Accept those things that you can't change and try to change those that you can change
Do something artistic or creative to release a different type of energy – paint, write a poem, sing
Lower your expectations of yourself and others – you are probably expecting an unreasonable amount
Challenge any tendency you have to always think negatively.  Spot it and say to yourself, "there I go again, imagining disaster, when it will probably be difficult but fine."

Try to start becoming aware of when you get stressed. Notice your bodily reactions as you get stressed and allow them rather than struggle with them – try saying, for instance, "I am feeling stressed which is to be accepted in the circumstances.  I can manage this."  Be aware of how you are reacting can have a lot of power in defusing the stress as awareness always brings some measure of control.

Going to Counselling

Counselling  can be a good way to investigate and discover the causes of your stress.  By talking things through,  you can understand yourself better and start to deal with situations better as well.  A neutral, trained listener can help you unburden problems and facilitate change to something better – and you can look at options for coping with current and future situations and change and growth.

David is a fully qualified, BACP accredited and registered Person Centred and Existential Counsellor.  If you wish to talk about a bereavement, you can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

Sunday, 24 July 2016


Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.

A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere.  Before him I may think aloud. 
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friendship is one of the most important things in life but what is it, especially in this age of Facebook "friends?"  Have you stopped long to consider it and what it has meant in your life? 

People often talk about friendship in counselling and most of what follows is a reflection on that. Many useful pointers are revealed when people talk in therapy, and in addition, both lived experience and those of good writers reveal some grains of wisdom that are worth passing on.  It is important to note that there can be differences between how the genders approach and form friendships but I will leave the reader to ponder that one.

There can be very little more painful in this life than finding out that people whom you thought were your friends turn out not to be.  It's a  common experienceone that most of us go through several times in our lives and one that people often come to talk about in therapy.

At heart counselling is about the struggle to live an authentic life.  When other people are less than kind, it can be very problematic because you either have to defend, protect or withdraw - and you probably don't want to do any of those things.  If it's someone you've known for a long time and suddenly you find that they talk behind your back or mock you for something they either don't understand or can't accept, you may feel doubly betrayed there may be a nagging feeling that they have been dishonest with you all along.

Thoughts on Friendship

Here are a few things to look out for, each of which comes up on a reasonably regular basis in counselling sessions:

Accept that some friends are good for certain activities perhaps more than one if you're lucky but are not going to be bosom buddies regarding everything.  And this is fine and healthy and normal.  We should expect nothing more.

If you have a friend with whom you can "open up" freely and speak of deeper emotional things whilst feeling  trust, acceptance and support, then count yourself very lucky.  The truth is that most of us do not have many such friendsthe sort that you could ring at almost any time with a problem and they'd find time there and then or as urgently as they possibly could.

To balance things out, ask yourself if you are a friend like that to anyone else.  It's no good complaining you don't have friends like this if you yourself are not willing or able to be one.

Look out for how your friends talk about other friends or acquaintances in your group when they are not there.  Be sure that the person who continually gossips, mocks or talks behind people's backs is also talking behind yours too.  We all have to learn this the hard way but do learn it, and instead find someone who is more genuine and consistent. 

If you find yourself making far more effort to be friendly with someone than they are with yousending texts, calling in on them, trying to start conversations, inviting them around and they just stonewall you, the message is pretty clear and it's time to put them on the back-burner (at best).

If a friend is being unpleasant to you, always ask yourself "who's stuff is this?"  If they decide to turn on you for their own motives, it may feel like an attack and perhaps it is on one level.  But on another much deeper level, they are acting out their own issues and their own agenda.  Allow yourself a few hours or days of hurt and then realise that actually you haven't changed but they have.  Maybe something you do triggers their stuff, makes them feel their own insecurity (when you didn't intend that) or maybe they are jealous of something.  Put that into the psychological mix when you see them next.

Beware of the power of the large group.  It is hard to be yourself in such a group.  There are undercurrents, cliques, pre-held assumptions,  loyalties and existing biases.  Friends are rarely made in these situations and often distanced or even lost in them, too.

Similarly, if you have to try to fit in with a group and they exclude, mock or devalue you because you don't fully do so, work out a way of dealing with that or else stay out of the group dynamic.   Also ask yourself how the lead or most popular people in that group maintain the group's the energy positive or are there negative undercurrents that also feed it?  In therapy, I hear a lot about bullying, peer-pressure and passive-aggressive behaviours in some social groups.  At its worst this peer behaviour can involve risk taking, pressure for excessive alcohol consumption, or drug talking.  You should always ask how much of that you want to be exposed to and for how long.

Also beware of the narcissistic friend.  That's the one who turns every conversation around to themselves.  However great your need or recent achievement, this person would rather talk about themselves and will steer things around to that very quickly (perhaps in less than a minute).  On social media you will spot this with great frequency.  People often crow about themselves but more annoying still are the people who hijack other people's threads to trumpet their own success, instead of being supportive to the original poster.

Be aware of the opportunity and curse of social media in general...and its attendant shallowness.  How many Facebook friends are really friends?  How many would you like if you had to spend a day with them?  No doubt there are some you've never met that you would get on with very well, and others you wouldn't.  Facebook comes up in counselling quite a lot usually negatively!

Some friendships may be unhealthy these can cause feelings of anxiety, stress or even despair. There is also such a thing  as the "Toxic friend" who has a very negative, energy sapping, poisonous affect on our  inner world.  Hopefully these "friends" won't last long and if you spot them early enough, they will  be less problematic than some of the previous examples (which are more subtle).

Sometimes you need to put some effort or renewal into a good friendship and ask yourself some questions - such as: what do I want from this friendship, and am I getting it?  What do I give to them?  Does this friendship feel reliable and balanced?  Are there issues between us that we need to address if we  ignore these issues does that cause more problems than it saves?

Some friendships can survive disputes and the odd falling out and maybe bounce back better but only if they are strong.  At heart, this is about respecting the other person's differences from yourself and realising that you won't agree on everything and that some of their ways are different from yours. Some weaker friendships may not  take the strain of this.  

Don't expect your friend to be perfect.  They aren't.  Are you?  Remember that saints are thin on the ground.  Your friend will probably get on your nerves at some point, that doesn't make them a bad friend.  On the other hand, you should expect to be treated kindly by your friends (even if they are saying something you don't agree with).

Finally, remember this friendship is important and of great value.  To have a good friend is to have something worth more than gold.  The best friends are often those whose mere company is enough to please you.  It doesn't matter what you are doing or saying, just their presence is enough. 


Saturday, 24 October 2015

Suicide and Suicide Bereavement


Suicide statistics across the world are quite alarming -  there are around 800, 000 suicides each year.  That's one every 40 seconds, and the rate has gone up by about 45% since 1970.  It is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year olds.  What's more, for every suicide, it is calculated that there are 20 people who self-harm. 

If we look at just England, there are, on average, 4, 800m suicides every year (13 a day).  Suicide has been rising ever since the recession started, although 2006/7 bucked the trend, showing the lowest ever figures in England since records began in 1861.  London, Cornwall, Devon the NW and the NE have the highest rates.  Men are statistically 3 times more likely  than women to kill themselves.  There could be a mix of reasons for this - it is said that "men don't ask for directions, never mind asking for help," they are more prone to addictions and are generally more impulsive, which means they often use more violent and immediate forms of suicide, where there is little chance of being rescued.

The highest risk is for men in their 40s and 50s, although this is also a problem age group for women.  People under mental health care also have very high rates of suicide, which peaks 1-2 weeks after they are discharged from treatment - especially if they live alone. 

The military services have a big problem with PTSD, depression and suicide after combat.  For obvious reasons, this has not been widely publicised in the past, but is now starting to achieve more recognition and attention - and much more openness.  Previously, veterans would get either no military funeral or else a quiet one -  even if they were highly decorated heroes.  It is now more recognised than ever, that combat can cause metal health problems and it does not bar personnel from military honours and funeral procedures.

Suicide is a serious public health problem but is not treated as such.  It's a subject that is avoided by most people - after all, death is scary enough as it is, and suicide is more so.  Then there is the link to mental illness that people imagine goes with it.  Some of the headlines seen in newspapers concerning suicide can be really quite sensationalised.  Even though suicide was decriminalised in 1961, many people, especially the press, still refer to "committing suicide."  I would recommend that we all try not to use this phrase as it adds to the stigma.  To be fair, it is not easy to avoid using it as we have all learnt that the two words go together - but we should try.

It's not easy to talk about suicide and it remains a taboo area.  A typically common reaction is, "you can talk about mental health, but not about suicide."  Indeed, suicide has been removed recently as a topic from one of the Sociology A Level syllabuses.  When considering the need to remove the stigma and silence about the subject, this seems nonsensical.

It is a good idea to remember that suicide is a point on the metal health continuum - albeit an extreme one.  As such, we should all be encouraging each other to speak about our feelings, however difficult or despairing they may be.  The most recent statistics say that mental health problems are reckoned to affect 1 in 4 of us every year.  It is worth considering the following quote:

"The average person lies 4 times a day, 1460 times  a year, 87600 times by the age of 60.  The most common lie is I am fine."

Suicide Bereavement

Suicide bereavement has unique issues over and above the normal issues of bereavement - guilt, rejection, anger, shame, numbness, isolation, stigma and despair are common and often never go away.   It is sometimes described as "grief with the volume turned up." It is  common for parental sufferers to "blame" themselves for the rest of their life for "not doing more to help" their son or daughter.

There is a massive increase in mental health issues and well-being problems for those who are left behind.   They have much increased risks for suicide, dropping out of jobs and poor social functioning.  I think that we should normalise this because, for instance, the majority of parents suffering suicide bereavement have suicidal ideation themselves (and feel that they cannot talk about it and feel discouraged from talking about it).  The authorities  and society do not encourage them to do so: IAPT offers no support at all from those bereaved by suicide;  CAMHS will help children with ADHD but not those who find a family member dead by their own hand - however grisly the means.

The affects of suicide ripple out like a pebble in the water - individual, family, workplace/school/peers, community, society.  Robin Williams is as an obvious example of this - though it is true for every suicide.  Every suicide affects us all eventually as it affects the society we live in.

There is a particular problem with stigma, as it prevents people from talking about the issue and thus breeds isolation, insularity and despair.  Although some stigma may be viewed as "positive stigma" - in that it that encourages people NOT to commit suicide, most stigma has entirely negative effects.
It would be good for society to move forward in reducing and eventually eliminating all forms of stigma about mental health.  Bill Clinton summed this up well with the following quote:

"We shouldn't be ashamed of mental health problems.  We should be ashamed of the stigma about them." 

Support for People Bereaved by Suicide

Within the last fifteen years, it has been recognised that more needed to be done for those left behind by suicide.  The National Suicide Prevention Strategy was set up in 2002 and various organisations have been set up since.  "Action is the antidote to despair" said Joan Baez and the following organisations have a variety of strategies in place to help with both practical and emotional help:

Help is at Hand -  a programme that produces booklets and has a website.  Its message is "You are not alone."
Winston's Wish (for children)
Survivors Of  Bereavement through Suicide (SOBS)
(believes that everyone affected by suicide should be offered timely support)

In America, there is

Counselling is a good place for those who feel suicidal or are suffering the effects of a suicide bereavement to start to process of moving to a better place.  It is best to allow a little time to pass before starting counselling - as a bereaved person is initially likely to suffer feeling dazed, out of balance and unready for talk.  In time, although it is unrealistic to think anyone can ever fully recover from suicide bereavement,  they can find some coming to terms, peace and positivity about the future - and counselling is an excellent way of helping to bring this about.  I have worked with those suffering after they have lost someone through suicide and am ready to offer my support to those who need it.

David is a fully qualified and BACP registered Person Centred Counsellor.  If you wish to talk about a bereavement, you can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at