What is Stress?

Stress is something we are all likely to be able to relate to. It’s an emotion that we experience when we feel under pressure. This can result from the demands of life feeling out of balance with our perceived ability to cope. In small doses, it’s harmless. In fact, it is helpful as it’s motivating. If we have an upcoming deadline, stress is the emotion that motivates us to take the necessary actions to meet it. However, when our stress levels are high, or even sustained at lower for extended periods, it can impact negatively on our health and wellbeing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) have named stress as ‘the epidemic of the 21st Century.’ In 2018, one of the largest studies into stress in the UK found that 74% of over 4,000 people surveyed reported feeling overwhelmed with stress and unable to cope (Mental Health Foundation). This is evidently something more of us are struggling with. This can include work-stress and burnout. Stress is not recognised as a mental health condition, however, it can increase the risk of anxiety and depression if it is sustained for long periods of time.

Stress and Anxiety

A question I get asked often, is what’s the difference between stress and anxiety? Stress is typically caused by an external trigger or life event such as a deadline, illness or career change. Anxiety is characterised by excessive and persistent worries that remain problematic even in the absence of a stress trigger. Stress and anxiety can feel very similar because both activate the body’s stress response. When you perceive a threat, your brain prepares your body for an intense physical reaction to fight or flee the threat. This is known as our ‘fight or flight response.’ When the threat and sense of danger has passed, your body is able to relax and recover.

This response helped us survive threats, such as predators, when we were hunter-gatherers. However, the triggers or ‘threats’ we face as part of our modern life are less likely to be physical threats and more likely to be linked with managing demands of work or home life, or meeting the expectations of ourselves or others. If we are going through a challenging period at work, facing financial difficulties or caring for a loved one with an illness, for example, the sense of threat we experience may be ongoing.

Unlike a predator we can fight or run away from, these modern day triggers don’t always have a clear end point and so can cause chronic stress. The brain activates the stress response that prepares our body for action, regardless of whether it is needed, because it’s what the brain is hard-wired to do.

Stress Symptoms

You may notice a number of changes in your body when your stress response is activated. These changes often include your heart rate increasing, feeling hot and sweaty, muscle tension, and changes in breathing. This is because our brain assumes that any threat requires a physical response, so it triggers a number of physiological changes to optimise our ability to take action to either fight or flee from the threat.

Diagram of physical symptoms of stress

Bodily systems that are not necessary for our immediate survival when under threat are supressed in an effort to conserve energy. This can include the immune, reproductive and digestive systems. Our body is designed to deal with these changes short term and then re-activate these systems back to normal functioning once the threat has passed.

However, when stress is chronic, there isn’t a clear end point to this threat and so the stress response stays activated for extended periods. The functioning of these systems may therefore remain reduced over longer periods, and this can impact on physical health. With a reduced immune system, you may find ourselves picking up bugs and viruses more often than usual. You may also find it takes much longer to recover fully. A lower-powered reproductive system can result in a loss of libido, erectile dysfunction or irregular periods. A suppressed digestive system can show up as nausea, acid reflux and changes in appetite. Understandably, these changes and prolonged systems can become triggers for further stress, and so the cycle continues.

 

How to Manage Stress

Quote from William James about the power of thinking over stress.One of the challenging things about stress is that is can build up quickly and we can miss the warning signs. As it is motivating, we can firefight our way through it without taking time to notice how we are feeling. We often recognise it as a problem at the point of overwhelm, exhaustion or burnout. Sometimes it can take an illness, physically or mentally, to realise that we have been struggling for some time.

Building Self Awareness

To manage our stress, we first need to be aware of it. Regularly checking in on how we are feeling can help us spot early warning signs of stress and then take proactive steps to manage it.

One of the ways we can do this is by keeping a stress log. This involves taking a few moments at the end of each day to note down our daily stress scores and consider what has contributed to your score. By doing this consistently, we can start to recognise reoccurring triggers. With more self-awareness, we are better able to shift our focus towards problem-solving these triggers.

Self-Help

Sometimes we need a helping hand to manage our stress. Stress Insights: Your Individualised Stress Management Plan is a downloadable workbook that guides you through exercises to:

  • Recognise your stress triggers
  • Spot how stress shows up for you
  • Draw on your unique strengths to develop a personal stress management plan.

Once downloaded, you can use this and update your plan as many times as you need.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

When we lack control over external stressors, it’s important to be able to focus on what we can control which is the way we respond to them. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) focuses on recognising our patterns of thinking and behaving and how this affects the way we feel. By  spotting and making changes to unhelpful patterns, we can learn how to manage and prevent stress.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how CBT can help you manage stress, we’re here to help. Get in touch to make an enquiry about starting 1:1 online therapy sessions.