What is Stress?
Stress is something we are all likely to be able to relate to. We experience stress when we feel under pressure. This can result from the demands of life feeling out of balance with our perceived ability to cope. Stress in small doses is healthy as it is a motivator. For example, if we have an upcoming deadline, it is often stress that motivates us to take the necessary actions to meet it. However, when stress levels are high or sustained even at low levels for extended periods, it can impact on our health and wellbeing.
Stress in the 21st Century
The World Health Organisation (WHO) have named stress as the epidemic of the 21st Century. It is something more of us are struggling with and can include work-stress and burnout. Although it is not a mental health condition itself, if we remain stressed for extended periods of time, stress can develop into anxiety and depression.
Stress and Anxiety
I often get asked 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 the ‘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 stress 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 may be ongoing.
Rather than a predator we can fight or run away from, these kinds of stressors don’t always have a clear end point and so can cause chronic stress. These examples don’t require an intense physical reaction, but the brain activates the stress response that prepares our body for this regardless because it’s what it’s hard-wired to do.
When you’re stressed, you may notice a number of changes in your body. Your heart rate increases, you feel hot, sweaty, tense, your mind feels like it’s racing and it’s hard to focus. When the stress response is activated, a number of physiological changes occur to optimise our ability to take physical action.
To conserve energy, ‘non-essential’ bodily systems such as the immune, reproductive and digestive systems can become supressed. With chronic stress, this is sustained over long periods and can impact on our physical health. We can become more susceptible to illness, experience changes in our reproductive systems that can cause erectile dysfunction or irregular periods, and experience digestive disturbances such as nausea, acid reflux and changes in appetite.
What can we do about this?
One of the things that can feel so challenging abut stress is a sense that we can’t control the triggers. Often, they are situations we can’t change. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a psychological therapy that acknowledges this. While we can’t always change our situations or experiences, we can make changes to the way we think and behave in response to them.
We all have unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving that can inadvertently exacerbate our stress. By recognising our stress triggers and our patterns of responding to them, we can identify areas for change and then take action to make these changes to support stress reduction and improve our wellbeing.
If you’re interested in how CBT can help you manage stress, we're here to help. Get in touch.