Mental health is a hot topic in the 21st century, with increasing evidence of the detrimental effects that the modern lifestyle is having on us. From the hustle and bustle of city life to the phone in your pocket, today’s world is filled with nonstop stimulation. In evolutionary terms, we’ve gone from relaxing in the sun to being chased by a pack of wolves in the flash of a second. Our minds aren’t ready to be constantly switched on, and it’s this long-term stress that’s leading to the mental health concerns that have become so prominent. This is a particularly important issue for those in demanding roles such as Social Work jobs.
So, what can we do to deal with stress and manage our mental health in today’s fast-paced culture?
Fight or Flight
You’ve probably heard the term “fight or flight” thrown around quite a lot in recent years as we unpick the causes of the increasing stress related-illnesses that our society faces. Fight or flight is our bodies’ instinctive response to a perceived threat or stress, and it prepares us to either fight or runs away by releasing adrenaline, increasing our heart/breathing rate and heightening our senses. For our ancestors, this would have been triggered by a predator or rival, but in today’s world, there’s a very small chance you will ever find yourself in a situation that actually requires this reaction.
Instead, this same reaction is triggered by everyday stressors such as running out of milk when you’ve already put the water into your tea or the looming deadline for those end-of-year reports. It’s these stressors, and the hundreds of others we face every day in Social Work jobs, that keep our bodies and minds stuck in this heightened state.
You might be wondering: isn’t this response exactly what I need to get me through a busy day? You’re right, kind of. The problem isn’t our bodies’ reaction to the stressors in itself. In fact, you can often feel the benefits of this response when you have to pull that all-nighter at work or deal with that extra challenging caseload. However, after a while, this reaction can overload our brains and bring with it the crippling effects of a stress-related illness that many of us deal with every day.
The increased levels of cortisol released during the endless fight or flight responses can trigger numerous symptoms, including decreased learning/memory, lower immune function, muscle tightness and aching, and increased weight gain, blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as mental impacts such as mood swings, anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping and irritability. However, whilst stress and the lingering effects of that pesky fight or flight response might feel as if they loom over you, hope is not lost.
Here are a few ways you can reduce stress and improve your mental health:
1. Take Time to Switch Off
One of the best things you can do for your mental health is prioritise time to relax each day. This can be challenging for many of us with busy schedules and competing for professional and personal demands. However, spending even as a little as 15 minutes unwinding at the end of the day gives your body the chance to relax and turn off that fight or flight response. Think of it as an investment – taking yourself away from stress triggers and letting your body settle back down can have noticeable effects on your mental and physical health, and might even make you better at your job!
Similarly, there has been a recent push on promoting mindfulness in the workplace. Contrary to what you might believe, this is different from being mindless! Mindfulness is about focussing your awareness and being present at the moment, consciously paying attention to your thoughts, bodily sensations, feelings and environment. Since many stresses exist inside our own heads, practising mindfulness makes it easier to concentrate on what’s in front of you and focus on what you can control, rather than becoming overwhelmed by anxiety.
2. Log Off From Life
To some people, it might sound unthinkable, but research has shown that simple actions such as taking time in your day away from phones, television, the radio and other technologies can give your mind a chance to decompress and turn off the fight or flight response. This may mean avoiding looking at anything work-related for a period of time after you get home so you can switch off instead of continuing to worry about a certain student or patient. It gives you an opportunity to separate your day from your evening at home, providing you with some closure to the working day so that you can properly rest and refresh.
Many of us settle down in the evening to ‘relax’ by sitting in front of the tele or reading a book, but these activities actually encourage the response. The fight or flight response is a primitive one, and it is unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy, so whilst you are watching James Bond fight off 12 opponents, your body is busy preparing to defend itself when those men burst through your front door. Whilst that doesn’t mean you should never watch TV (what would we do without a bit of Game of Thrones in our lives?), don’t class TV time as your 15 minutes of downtime.
3. Get Moving
Getting out and exercising has been proven over and over again to have huge impacts on peoples’ mental health. You don’t have to run a marathon every weekend to feel the benefits either – it can be as easy as parking an extra block away from work and walking the rest of the distance.
Exercising helps relieve stress, clear your mind and even releases endorphins, which is why you often feel good afterwards. Refocusing the mind onto a single thing in this way enables it to let go of all the problems that have built up over the course of the day, leaving you feeling mentally refreshed.
Stress and mental health are big issues in today’s world, but the good news is that you can do something about it. By investing in your wellbeing, you can ensure you’re able to continue giving your best in both your professional and personal life. To learn how we can help you with your career, get in touch with the team today.