One of the biggest impacts on my own personal wellbeing over the years has been how I am managing stress, or as has often been the case mismanaging it! Stress can be so bad that it has serious impacts on our physical and mental wellbeing, yet it can also provide us with some additional energy and drive… So, I thought it would be useful to start to understand what is behind this word with three S’s!
Stress has an impact on all of us and can arise from so many places in life. I tend to link it to an imbalance in my life, and akin to a force that is affecting my daily life, perhaps even dictating my life! For me it can arise particularly when I have too much going on, and too many other things that I would really like to be doing.
The first step to stress management is to know about stress.
What is stress?
Stress is the reaction of the body to harmful situations, whether real or perceived. It begins in our primeval brain. If we feel threatened our bodies will have a chemical reaction that allow us to act in a way that prevents injury. This reaction is commonly referred to as fight or flight or, the stress reaction. In extreme cases our bodies might also freeze, not allowing us to move, and in very extreme situations our bodies may even shut down. During stress, our heart rate increases; we breathe more quickly; our muscles tighten; and our blood pressure increases. This is our body guarding itself against the stressful event that has occurred.
The Indicators of Stress
Stress can affect all aspects of our life including our emotions, behaviours, ability to think, and physical health. The indicators will vary from person to person, depending on how we control stress.
Emotional stress indicators might include being easily irritated, disappointed, and moody. We might feel overwhelmed as we lose control or try to take control. It may be hard to relax and calm our mind. Our self-esteem may become low, and we feel worthless and depressed.
Physical stress indicators might include headaches, an upset stomach, including diarrhoea constipation and nausea. We might have other aches, pains and muscle tension, perhaps even a pain in the chest and a fast heartbeat. Stress often affects sleep patterns, and I have often experienced, and spoken to clients about the 3 am moment, when the brain decides to wake up and worry about the problems of our world. We may experience more infections, or colds; nervousness or shaking; a dry mouth and difficulty swallowing; and my personal challenge is clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth, much to the delight of my Dentist.
Stress can affect the way we think, by being constantly concerned or our thoughts racing away from us. We may find it difficult to concentrate, or even have poor judgement. Some may find themselves being more pessimistic or seeing the negative side of things more often.
Stress can also affect our behaviour, perhaps our appetite changes, or we procrastinate and avoid taking responsibility for things. We might also show more nervous behaviours, for example nail biting. And unfortunately, all too common we know that we may increase our use of alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs as a way to alleviate these indicators.
So, what causes stress?
I’ve certainly found in my exploration of this topic, and seeking to understand my own well-being, that identifying the causes of the stress I am experiencing begins to help me handle the situation and develop my way of coping. The more technical name for the causes of stress is our ‘Stressors’. These might come from any aspect of our life, including work, homelife, family situations or social life. Our health is often a key stressor, as is our financial well-being. Personally, one of my coping mechanisms is to name my stressor and to say it out loud, so I register it better in my mind which helps me to think it through. I also try and be honest with people who I love and trust and share this with them, so they know too.
Feelings of stress are usually triggered by things happening in your life which might involve being under lots of pressure, or facing big changes, and losing some or all control over the outcome of a situation. Work is very often a key factor, and it could be having too much to do, or a task that you don’t feel skilled enough to do, as well as not enough work to do to keep you busy and feed your household. There might be one big thing causing our stress, or a build-up of small pressures that make it difficult to put your finger on exactly the root cause.
Today’s science can tell us a great deal about what is going on in our brains when we are feeling stressed. We know for instance that a part of the brain called the hypothalamous, which is within our primeval brain drives our response to stress. Thousands of years ago of course stress might have been more about a dangerous animal about to attack, and that is how our brains have evolved. It might help to just recognise that the way our brains respond to stress may not have developed as fast as technology, so am I excused for getting stressed that my Wi-Fi just doesn’t work like magic! So, the hypothalamus sends nerve and hormones signals to our adrenal glands which release a large number of hormones into the body. These hormones are the way of nature preparing us for danger and increasing our chances of survival.
Three primary hormones that induce stress are:
Cortisol: cortisol is the primary stress hormone, which increases blood sugar (glucose), increases the use of glucose in our brain, and increases the availability of tissue-based substances. Cortisol also curbs functions that in a fight or flight situation would be in non-essential, or adverse.
Adrenaline: the fight or flight hormone is also known as adrenaline. It is released in the face of a stressful, exciting, dangerous, or menacing situation. Adrenaline helps our body to react faster.
Norepinephrine: this is released into the blood as a stress hormone if the brain sees a stressful event stop this affects how the brain pays attention and responds to events as part of the body’s response to stress.
Now you may have heard that stress is not always bad. Some might say that stress is simply the response of the body to changes affecting us. We often use the term stress in our everyday lives to describe negative situations, and there is a good word for this:
Distress Vs. Eustress
Distress wears you out, leaves your drained, and can wreck your health. It causes anxiety, and worry. It can be short or long term. It feels awful and may be outside of our ability to cope. Our performance may decrease in many parts of our lives and it may ultimately lead to physical and mental issues that need attention.
It might help to compile a list of stressors that you find distressful. Some distressing events might include: the death or serious illness of a loved one; separation from a partner, or divorce; being abused or mistreated; financial problems and debt issues; and there are many more. Work is often a cause of distress and this can be related to a number of things such as excessive demands on your time, and abilities; conflicts with co-workers; insufficient authority to perform your tasks; or even in pre or post covid time the length, and conditions or your commute to work. Sometimes these can be exasperated through over scheduling, and having no personal time in the day, or a lack of planning by colleagues who need results in short time.
There is of course an opposite to Distress, and the word is Eustress. This refers to the times when stressful things can inspire, motivate, and improve our performance. Eustress gives us energy, drive, and a feeling of excitement. It can enhance our performance! Yet is likely to only have a temporary effect. Examples of events that might cause us Eustress might be: a promotion; a wedding; buying a new house (which can also be distressful if it goes off track), a new child; a holiday or even leaving work to do other things, (previously known as retirement).
So, understanding stress maybe a first step in our stress management. It might help to be able to identify the root causes of our stress, our stressors, and actually whether it is distress, or eustress we are experiencing. When we can identify our stressors, we can start to build up some tactics for handling these, which may include avoidance, or prevention, or a way to manage the stress when it occurs. Better stress management can help us reduce our risk of stress related diseases and will hopefully just help us feel better every day.
Stress management is unlikely, if not impossible to rid us of stress. If you feel unable to manage your stress, or if you have anxiety or depression accompanying this, then please seek some support. If you work for an organisation, you are likely to have an employee assistance programme, which are underused in my view at the best of times. Or of course just speak to your doctor.
In the next Stress Blog, I will talk about coping with stress, and my own challenges in approaching these. In the meantime, here are some key components to think about:
· Eat healthy
· Sleep well
· Take regular exercise
· Minimise Caffeine
· Minimise Alcohol
· Be friends and friendly
· Take time out for yourself
· Relax, and maybe even meditate
I hope this has been useful and informative. Please provide comments and contribute to the knowledge if you are able.