What is stress?
The fight or flight response
When we experience a shock or perceive a threat, our bodies quickly release hormones that help it to survive (Adrenaline and cortisol). In humans, as in other animals, these hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure - delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies - reducing blood loss if we are damaged. As well as this, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. Breathing is accelerated to supply more oxygen for conversion to energy. The heart moves into overdrive to supply the body with more oxygen and nutrients. Our immune system is activated, ready to administer to wounds. Attention and sight become acute and highly focused and our sense of pain is diminished as the body releases analgesic hormones.
What’s so bad about stress?
The body's stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body's processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:
3) Digestive problems
4) Heart disease
5) Sleep problems
6) Weight gain
7) Memory and concentration impairment
In modern society, we are generally protected from ‘predators’ but the inherent fight or flight response still resides in us but now it’s triggered by different, seemingly less life threatening events. Many day-to-day situations can set it off - a change of home, a difficult boss, divorce, separation, demanding children, traffic jam etc. That's why it's so important to learn healthy ways to cope with stress – it is impossible to get RID of stress but it is important to cope well both for your mental and physical wellbeing.
The more often we are exposed to these types of stressors, the more overactive our fight or flight response becomes until we find ourselves operating at fever pitch level, constantly prepared for battle, perceiving potential threats everywhere.
That is why people who are over stressed not only show physiological symptoms such as high blood pressure, rapid heart rate or shallow fast breath; they can seem overly sensitive or aggressive. Today many of us don’t take enough physical exercise to ‘burn off’ the effects of our response and we’re left with stress build up. We learn to control our reactions, but this does not counteract the stress response.
Tips for reducing stress levels:
1. Be active
If you have a stress-related problem, physical activity can get you in the right state of mind to be able to identify the causes of your stress and find a solution. To deal with stress effectively, you need to feel robust and you need to feel strong mentally and exercise can help with this. Exercise won’t make your stress disappear, but it will reduce some of the emotional intensity that you’re feeling, clearing your thoughts and enabling you to deal with your problems more calmly. When people get depressed or anxious, they often feel they're not in control of their lives and exercise can give back control of their bodies, which is often the first step to feeling in control of other events.
2. Take control
There’s a solution to any problem. If you remain passive, thinking, ‘I can’t do anything about my problem’, your stress will get worse. That feeling of loss of control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing. The act of taking control is in itself empowering, and it's a crucial part of finding a solution that satisfies you and not someone else.
3. Connect with people
A problem shared is a problem halved. A good support network of colleagues, friends and family can ease your work troubles and help you see things in a different way. If you don’t connect with people, you won’t have support to turn to when you need help. The activities we do with friends help us relax and we often have a good laugh with them, which is an excellent stress reliever. Talking things through with a friend will also help you find solutions to your problems.
4. Have some ‘me time’
The UK workforce works the longest hours in Europe. The extra hours in the workplace mean that people aren’t spending enough time doing things that they really enjoy. We all need to take some time for socialising, relaxation or exercise. It’s recommended to set aside a couple of nights a week for some quality "me time" away from work. By earmarking those two days, it means you won’t be tempted to work overtime on those days.
5. Challenge yourself
Setting yourself goals and challenges, whether at work or outside, such as learning a new language or a new sport, helps to build confidence. That in turn will help you deal with stress. By constantly challenging yourself you’re being proactive and taking charge of your life. By continuing to learn, you become more emotionally resilient as a person. It arms you with knowledge and makes you want to do things rather than be passive, such as watching TV all the time.
6. Avoid unhealthy habits
Don't rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine as your ways of coping. Men more than women are likely to do this. It is known as avoidance behaviour. Women are generally better at seeking support from their social circle. Over the long term, these crutches won’t solve your problems. They’ll just create new ones. You need to tackle the cause of your stress.
7. Work smarter, not harder
Good time management means quality work rather than quantity. Our long-hours culture is a well-known cause of workplace illness. You have to get a work-life balance that suits you. Working smarter means prioritising your work, concentrating on the tasks that will make a real difference to your work. Leave the least important tasks to last. Accept that your in-tray will always be full. Don’t expect it to be empty at the end of the day.
8. Be positive
Look for the positives in life, and things for which you're grateful. Write down three things at the end of every day that went well or for which you're grateful. This requires a shift in perspective for those who are more naturally pessimistic. By making a conscious effort you can train yourself to be more positive about life. Problems are often a question of perspective. If you change your perspective, you may see your situation from a more positive point of view.
9. Accept the things you can’t change
Changing a difficult situation isn't always possible. If this proves to be the case, recognise and accept things as they are and concentrate on everything that you do have control over.
Let me know if you have any other tips that you'd like to share.
Until next time...