If a colleague asks whether you are stressed, many of us will snap back: “No, I’m not.” We respond swiftly, as though being stressed were a sign of weakness or failure rather than a natural response to challenging circumstances. What’s your answer to these questions: are you having trouble sleeping ? Do you need strong coffee to get you going in the morning and then wine at night to wind down? Do you grind your teeth in the night? Are you eating more than usual ? Are you finding it difficult to focus? If you answered yes to one or more of those, you could be stressed – and there is no shame in that. We are into the third year of the coronavirus pandemic and a lot of us are stressed. For many of us, it has been a long time coming, a slow wearing away of our physical and mental health. Not all stress is bad. There is good stress, the sort that alerts us to a challenge in front of us and helps ensure we do something about it; short-term stress, that fires us up to react to an immediate situation; and then there is toxic stress, which is the sort we get when we don’t have control over a threatening situation. Dr Quratulain Zaidi, a registered clinical psychologist in Hong Kong, calls toxic stress the “silent pandemic” of the Covid-19 era. “A lot of people are stressed because things are so uncertain, the world and the landscape around us are constantly changing. It is prolonged uncertainty, a prolonged sense of loss,” says Zaidi. You don’t need to leave your home to see this online counselling team This prolonged uncertainty creates heightened anxiety; our survival brain is constantly monitoring our environment and making judgments about what is and isn’t safe. “We are hard-wired to overestimate threats and underestimate your ability to handle them – all in the name of survival. When certainty is questioned, your stress response is in overdrive, instantly going into fight-or-flight reaction, to take action and get you to safety,” says Zaidi. The courageous thing to do is not to push on like a brave little soldier, but to pay attention to the warning signs our body is giving us before the problem manifests into something far more serious. “If you look at the biochemistry and biology of stress, it affects every single organ, it is cumulative,” says Zaidi, which is why medical research estimates as much as 90 per cent of illness and disease is stress-related. Stress causes inflammation in the body, says Dr Benita Perch, a naturopathic physician. Physically, the early warning signs range from headaches and hair loss to teeth grinding, heart palpitations and issues with your digestive system . “A lot of my patients might not be anxious, they are not actively worried about something, but that doesn’t mean they are not stressed. They are working long hours, looking after kids, not eating well. A lot of the time working mums have no time for themselves, they are in chronic stress,” says Perch. The problem with accumulated stress is that it builds up so slowly that we tend not to notice it; we keep trying to shrug it off and maintain business as usual. Perch says to look out for overreacting to situations. “Someone might become irritable or angry easily or worry over little things. They might start overly tidying; it’s not OCD , but they need everything to be organised. Or [they] become very critical of people, oversensitive and offend easily. All symptoms of being stressed, but they might not be recognised as stress,” says Perch. The quality of your sleep is a good indicator of your health – if you are having trouble falling asleep or if you wake up in the night and find it hard to go back to sleep, it is a sign that something is off track. Insomnia can lead to tiredness during the day and brain fog. Perch has noticed during the pandemic many of her patients are eating more – “I’m going to eat what I want to feel better ” – and increasing their alcohol consumption, which for women comes with an increased risk of breast cancer. If we are all a little nicer to each other and understand where other people are coming from, it will help everyone feel better Dr Benita Perch, a naturopathic physician “People are burned out. Their resilience is out. A lot of people are not taking leave because they think, ‘What’s the point? May as well keep going to work’,” says Perch. So, if you recognise yourself in any of this, what can you do? First up, re-evaluate your boundaries. Instant connectivity and a 24/7 culture were cutting away at our work-life balance before the pandemic, and with many of us having spent at least some time working from home, those boundaries have become even more blurred. “It’s OK to put your phone away and not answer emails. We have forgotten how to differentiate between levels of responsibility and importance. Create healthy boundaries with the people who you interact with, with social media, with the media you consume,” says Zaidi. How to make home a happy place when you’re stuck together She says reducing our consumption of constant information will improve our mental health. By doing just one thing at a time and being mindful in the moment, we will reduce stress. Perch also recommends learning to become more mindful or taking up meditation – for just 10 to 20 minutes a day – which can help to calm and reset the nervous system. “We’re all in our sympathetic nervous system overdrive; meditation can help us get to our parasympathetic nervous system, which is rest,” says Perch. If you are new to meditation and the idea of sitting in stillness seems too big a first step, try progressive muscle relaxation, squeezing and releasing your muscles progressively from your head to your toes. It can be done in five minutes. Exercise is a great de-stressor – but be careful not to overdo it because intense exercise can increase your cortisol levels . If you enjoy a hard-core cardio workout, balance it with a slower exercise routine such as yoga, walking, swimming or tai chi, which can help bring your nervous system into a calmer space. Perch says she has a well-honed well-being regime to help her juggle the demands of her professional life managing a naturopathic clinic with looking after her two young children. She enjoys a walking meditation on the beach by herself once a week and has a weekly foot, head and neck massage. For exercise, she does a combination of cardio (Zumba and a dance class), yoga and Pilates. Her diet is gluten- and dairy-free and she cuts out as much sugar as possible to reduce inflammation. She does indulge her one real vice, coffee, but aims to get eight hours’ sleep a night . Want to be happier and boost brain health? Then talk to people “Everyone at this point [in the pandemic] needs help – there are very few people who can cope with no extra support. Reach out to a professional, a doctor or counsellor, or reach out to your support network. On the flipside, reach out to someone who may need your support,” says Perch. “Everyone is in this place together, so remember kindness and compassion. If we are all a little nicer to each other and understand where other people are coming from, it will help everyone feel better.” Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .