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Life is normally full of ups and down, and it is more than likely that we have all felt stressed during some point in our life. During periods of stress we may feel overwhelmed or start to feel burned out. We may experience headaches or migraines, have stomach problems or feel tired before the week has barely begun. Feeling stressed can be unsettling, difficult and sometimes even debilitating.
The good news is, that how stressed we get or how often this happens, are two things that we can have an enormous influence over. Without smart habits for dealing with stressful situations, life can be a whole lot more difficult than it needs to be. Effective stress maintenance involves managing what we eat, how we think, the manner we treat our body, what actions we take on a regular basis and how we deal with social interactions. These key factors of stress management are the foundational blocks that help build harmony with ourselves, others and our immediate environment. If we cultivate these factors and apply them to our daily routine, we will find bliss where others find havoc and mayhem.
What is stress?
Stress is our body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When we feel threatened our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which arouse the body for emergency action. This triggers the heart to pound faster, the breath to quicken, the muscles to tighten, blood pressure to rise, and our senses to become sharper. These physical changes increase our strength and stamina, speeding up our reaction time, and enhancing our focus. This is known as the “fight, flight, freeze, flop or friend response” (Lodrick, 2007) and is our body’s way of protecting it. The nervous system rouses for emergency action—preparing us to either fight, flee, freeze, flop or befriend the danger at hand.
When stress is within our comfort zone, it can help us to stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save our life – giving us extra strength to defend ourselves or to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. Stress can also help us to meet challenges and keep us on our toes to achieve the best we can. But beyond our comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to our mind and body.
The effects of Chronic Stress
The body’s nervous system sometimes finds it difficult to distinguish between daily stressors and life-threatening events. For example, if we are stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam on a commute, or a mountain of bills, our bodies can still react as if we are facing a life-or-death situation.
When we repeatedly experience the fight, flight, freeze, flop or friend response in our daily lives, it can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in our bodies. It can shut down our immune system, upset our digestive and reproductive systems, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave us vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.
Health Problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Weight problems
- Auto immune diseases
- Skin conditions, such as eczema
- Reproductive issues
- Pain of any kind
- Heart disease
- Digestive problems
- Sleep problems
- Cognitive and memory problems
Signs and symptoms of chronic stress or stress overload
The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of chronic stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
Causes of stress
We usually think of stressors (situations and pressures that cause stress) as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on us can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated, when we worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life. Below, I have listed some common external and internal causes of stress:
Common external causes of stress
- Major life changes
- Work or school
- Relationship difficulties
- Financial problems
- Being too busy
- Children and family
Common internal causes of stress
- Chronic worry
- Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
- Negative self-talk
- Unrealistic expectations/Perfectionism
- All-or-nothing attitude
Other factors that influence our stress tolerance
Our sense of control – It is easier to manage stress if we have confidence in our ability to influence events and persevere through challenges. Therefore, hardship or persistent money worries can be major stressors for so many of us. If we feel like things are out of our control, we are more likely to have less tolerance for stress.
Our attitude and outlook – Hopeful people are more often more resilient. These kinds of people tend to embrace challenges, have a stronger sense of humor, and accept change as an inevitable part of life.
Our knowledge and preparation – The more we know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if someone goes into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less stressful than if they were expecting to bounce back immediately.
Improving our ability to handle stress
There are many ways in which to build a tolerance to stress or cope with its symptoms. Unfortunately, many of us try to deal with stress in ways that only compound the problem. We might engage in activities which could be harmful to us, such as smoking or drinking too much, overeating, zoning out in front of the TV for hours or lashing out at people. However, there are many healthier and more effective ways to cope with stress and its symptoms. Below I have listed some of the things we can all do to help manage the stress in our lives:
Emotional awareness – Having the emotional awareness to recognize when we are stressed and then being able to calm and soothe ourselves can increase our tolerance to stress and help us to bounce back from adversity. It is a skill that can be learned at any age.
Get moving – Exercise has been proven to help depression and anxiety, and can be extremely helpful in relieving stress. Exercises such as walking, running, swimming, dancing, and aerobic classes (amongst many others) are all good choices. Regular exercise can lift our mood and help us to find some time for ourselves, so that we break out of the cycle of stress and anxiety.
Connect to others – The simple act of talking face to face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when we are feeling uncomfortable, unsure, or unsafe. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe our nervous system. Being helpful and friendly to others also reduces our stress, as well as providing great opportunities to expand our social network.
The quality of our relationships and support network – Social engagement has always been a human being’s most evolved response to life’s stressors. Therefore, it is no surprise that people with a strong network of friends and family—with whom they are comfortable sharing emotions—are better able to tolerate stress.
Set aside relaxation time – Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the fight, flight, freeze, flop or friend response.
Eat a healthy diet – Eating regular healthy meals is important for emotional and mental wellbeing. Cutting out caffeine, processed food and alcohol can really help. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress. Whilst eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help us better cope with life’s ups and downs.
Get your rest – Feeling tired and not getting enough sleep can increase stress. At the same time, chronic stress can disrupt sleep. There are many ways in which to improve sleep. You can download my improving sleep guide in the resource section for some further ideas to improve sleep.
Practice mindfulness – Mindfulness practice is a way of being present in the here and now and has been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally”. Research shows there are huge psychological and physical health benefits such as a reduction in stress and anxiety, when mindfulness is practiced over an eight-week period. You can read more about mindfulness in my blog Anyone for Mindfulness?
Research suggests that stress (especially long-term stress) can cause long term health issues (Cohen, S., et al. 2012). Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh says:
“We are just beginning to understand the ways that stress influences a wide range of diseases of aging, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and certain types of disability, even early death”
However, the impact of stress can sometimes be underestimated by some people. There are many misconceptions about stress, such as “if I was strong enough, I would be able to cope”. The reality is, is that our ability to manage stress is not determined by how “strong” we are, it is normally learnt through our upbringing and environment, which is something we have had no control over as children. The good news is, is that we can relearn how to manage stress, anxiety and demanding situations, by rebalancing our life and becoming more self-aware.
Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Doyle, W. J., Miller, G. E., Frank, E., Rabin, B. S., and Turner, R. B. (2012). Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 5995-5999.