The Problem with Stress
STRESS. It’s that word we know all so well! Stress is a huge factor in today’s society and left untreated for any lengthy period, can cause significant physical and mental health problems.
There are many things that can cause stress such as relationships, work, illness, family, or our environment. Or life presents us with a seemingly insurmountable situation, and we wander how on earth we are going to get through it!
We are all faced with stress at some point in our lives and some stress is not necessarily a bad thing as it increases our productivity and motivates us to get the job done.
However, when we are continually faced with stress, this can cause all sorts of issues that can potentially cause us harm both physically and mentally. Essentially, we are not equipped to be experiencing the amount of stress we are holding in today’s living. We have access to more information than ever, we want to succeed, to achieve, to have the career, the family, the house, and all that goes with that. This is tipping us over into an unhealthy way of living as we try to manage and juggle it all.
When there are too many demands being placed upon us and we cannot meet those demands, this is where stress can start to cause more serious and harmful issues. There are several different factors that will determine whether our stress will tip over into chronic stress. These factors are the source of the stress, the intensity, and the duration.
So, if the source, intensity, and duration of your stress is going beyond your coping abilities, you run the risk of facing chronic stress. This level of stress puts both mind and body under enormous amounts of pressure and can start to manifest as illness.
Chronic stress can cause co-occurring mental and physical illness. When it gets to this stage it can make recovery more challenging and lengthier, although not impossible by any means. This is why it is such a serious issue and why we need to get better at recognising our stress and putting strategies in place to protect ourselves.
We need to find simpler ways of living, focusing on the things that are important to us and taking better care of ourselves. Of course, sometimes life throws us a curve ball that we were not expecting, and this can feel very much out of our control. However, by taking better care of our wellbeing, finding healthier coping strategies, and managing our stress levels more effectively, we can reduce the risk of more complex health issues in the future.
The first step when dealing with stress is gain more awareness around your current stressors. Write a list of all the things that are causing you stress. Sometimes situations are completely outside of our control, yet we waste time and energy by worrying about them. Focus on the things that you can do something about. That is a much better use of your energy. Once you have written your list, ask yourself these questions in relation to each one:
Is this within or outside of my control?
Is there anything I can do about this to help myself?
What would be helpful to me right now in this situation?
Could someone else help me with this?
Do I need to let go of something here?
Have I taken on too much?
The Stress Response
Let’s talk about the stress response, also known as the fight, or flight response. This is perhaps something you may or may not have heard of before. It’s helpful to understand a little more about how the stress response works, as this is going to assist you in understanding what is happening within the body and the importance of finding healthy coping strategies to deal with stress.
The stress response is what happens when you sense danger or are faced with a threat. It is the automatic survival mechanism which prepares you to fight or flee in the face of danger. Several physiological changes happen within the body to prepare you to face the danger or run away from it.
To prepare you for this, your heart rate quickens, you receive a boost of adrenaline, blood moves towards major organs and cortisol together with other stress hormones are released, preparing you to take immediate action.
This was useful for our ancestors who may have faced numerous physical threats. The main threats in ancient times may have been predators which presented an extreme physical threat.
However, in current times our perceived threats are less physical in nature and more associated with today’s living, so may relate to our social status, work demands, family responsibilities and so on.
The problem with this is that these threats can happen far too often and do not appear as a large animal about to eat you but could come in the form of a phone call or a conversation with a colleague where you threat system is activated.
When these stressors are constant (remember we talked about the source intensity and duration) the stress response can stay active within the body, putting the body under a huge amount of pressure, causing havoc to our internal system. The body needs a chance to repair and recover but this can be challenging if the body is perceiving threats several times per day.
So, we need to find an effective way of bringing our bodies back into harmony and balance. A beneficial way to combat the harmful effects of stress is to activate the relaxation response. By activating the relaxation response, a hormone called acetylcholine is released, your heart rate slows down, your breathing returns to normal, blood pressure lowers, and muscles start to relax. This allows the body to come back into balance.
The Relaxation Response
The relaxation response is activated by … yep, you guessed it … relaxing activities. Anyone can activate the relaxation response and it can be done through activities such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. It doesn't even have to be these things as it could be just having some time out, going for a walk or reading a book.
Think about what you find relaxing and how you can support your body in activating the relaxation response so your body is given the chance to recover from stress.
Now I understand for many there may be blocks to finding time to relax such as “ooh, that is too self-indulgent!” or “I don’t have time to relax!” but by doing this, there is something crucial happening within the body as you allow yourself time to recover from stress.
Obviously, this may depend on what you are currently going through. So, for example, you could be going through something that is long and enduring such as divorce. But in this case, it is important to tend to your stress daily. Perhaps at the end of the day, you could allow yourself a few minutes to really focus on breathing deeply into the body allowing everything to ease so you can return to balance.
This is all easier said than done…I know! But do give it a try because you could be giving your body a fighting chance of your stress not resulting in something more serious.
Some activities that activate the relaxation response might be:
Deep breathing exercises
Being in nature
Listening to some peaceful music
Healthy Coping Strategies
Our ability to cope with stress will depend on the coping strategies we have in place. Having good strategies in place will determine how well you can manage your stress levels. But also, be aware of unhealthy coping strategies. Yes…we all have them! So, for example, drinking several glasses of wine may not be the most supportive strategy. And I get it! It may be very tempting to reach for the ‘quick fix’ as this is a common coping strategy, but it will not help you long-term. Think about healthier strategies that are going to support you like attending a yoga session or going for a morning run.
Carve out some time in your schedule to tend to your wellbeing or arrange to meet with a good friend for coffee. These are healthy coping strategies and will support you in your attempt to manage your stress.
Healthy coping strategies:
Creating a better work/life balance
Speaking about your stress with friends or family
Asking for help
Learning to say “no”
Getting an early night
Your Support Network
As well as healthy coping strategies, it is also good to think about your support network. Who do you have around you that can support you? When I talk about a support network, this can be family and friends who you can reach out to for a bit of support, but you could also include professionals such as your therapist, doctor, or chiropractor. Think about those that can support you in any way, even if it is your next-door neighbour who will watch your children whilst you attend an appointment. You could even include online support or find out what resources are available in your local area.
Use this free template to help you identify your support network.
The most important thing is to recognise that you are vitally important and so is your wellbeing. Do what you can to reduce your stressors by asking for help or sharing it with a friend.
And lastly, it is okay to put your needs first by saying no to others and prioritising your own mental health and wellbeing so you can manage your stress more effectively.
If you enjoyed this blog post and want to know how to take better care of your mental health, then check out our online course, Master your Mental Health.