Stress is a natural and normal physiological response to challenging or unexpected situations. In the world of business and service deliverability stress can also be defined as “demand that exceeds the available resources”. So, when does stress inhibit our roles and performance in life?
Some stress is ok for us.
It causes our bodies to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which helps us to take immediate action in the face of danger or difficulty. It can also give us energy to work on important projects, and even enhance our performance and problem-solving ability.
But chronic stress, which is constant and persists over an extended period, can be harmful for us and diminishes our performance, mood, and overall mental and physical well-being.
Most of us these days experience too much ongoing stress in daily life. So how can we manage stress better so that we can stay happy, healthy, and productive?
What is stress for us?
The body’s stress response, also called the ‘fight or flight’ response, is a helpful way your body has adapted to respond to danger. This is evolution’s way of mobilising your body in times of stress so that you could run, fight, or even ‘fawn’ or freeze, to avoid danger and stay alive.
When you experience episodes of stress you need the stress hormones your body releases to keep you alert and able to face challenges.
However it’s not only in times of immediate danger that our fight or flight system turns on. Whenever you get stressed or upset in daily life, your body goes into the fight or flight mode.
We are often very busy and have very full to do lists, as well as worries and personal challenges such as trouble in relationships or financial difficulties. We also might ruminate about personal faults, regrets or grievances. Stress-filled thoughts, rushing around and facing every day challenges can all result in feeling stressed.
Physical signs of stress you can look out for are:
- Faster heartbeat and breathing
- Tense muscles
- Uneasy or upset stomach
- Racing thoughts
- Changes in mood such as irritability and anger
- Feeling on edge
- and behaviourally, increased alcohol intake
All of these are signs that your body is in fight or flight mode. These symptoms are normal and natural and should pass soon after the stressful situation is over.
However, if these kinds of symptoms are ongoing in your daily life, it may be a sign that you are too stressed and on the injurious route to ‘burn-out’
How do I know ‘if’ I’m too stressed?
Stress can become a problem when it lasts a long time, becomes ongoing, or if you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with your situation. When this happens, it is very important to take steps to manage your stress to ensure that you can stay happy, healthy and able to remain effective in your life.
The problem is that for most of us these days we experience quite a bit of ongoing stress in daily life. We live in a busy, demanding world with increasing amounts of uncertainty and instability.
The key to stress management is finding the right balance between healthy helpful stress and stress that is chronic or debilitating.
The point where stress becomes chronic is different for everyone, but you might look out for the following signs:
- Ongoing changes in mood, such as ongoing anxiety, sadness or irritability
- Feelings of persistent overwhelm or helplessness
- Difficulty concentrating. scattered thoughts
- Feeling ‘wired but tired’: feeling exhausted but simultaneously having difficulty sleeping
- Fixation on problems: unable to stop worrying or ruminating about an issue
- Loss of pleasure and meaning in life
- Physical reactions such as muscle tension, upset stomach, body aches
- Loss of balance in life. Not making time for things that bring you energy, health and happiness
- Withdrawal from social circles and loved ones
- Using substances like alcohol and drugs to cope
Chronic stress, when unremitting for a number of months, can lead to all kinds of health problems as well as mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. So how can we learn to manage it more effectively?
- Speak with a Counsellor (sooner rather than later!)
- Learn to be more Mindful
- Take walks and spend time in nature
- Commit to regular exercise
- Eat healthily
- Reduce caffeine
- Increase sleep
And here’s three ways to switch on the relaxation response in daily life.
Twenty second tension release
When you’re going about daily life, ticking off tasks on your to-do list, replying to emails, or stuck in traffic, see if you can tune in to whether you’re starting to tense up physically. When ever you notice tension, deliberately relax your body at will. Especially the jaw and the shoulders. See if you can pause every now and then and let go of some of the tension in the body again and again throughout the day. Even if you let go just a little bit, that’s still great.
One way you can incorporate this into your daily life is to ‘pair’ twenty seconds of tension release with another activity you do on a regular basis, such as every time you’re about to hit send on an email, eat a meal, have a cup of tea or every time you get into the car.
Practice deep breathing to find greater calm and clarity
In times where you know that you’ve just become stressed (say after a hard conversation or a bit of bad news), one thing you can do is take a few long slow deep breaths with long exhales. This can switch off the stress response and switch on the relaxation response. This will help you find mental clarity and calm again, and help you deal with things more effectively.
Schedule relaxing activities
Schedule activities during your week that help you turn off your fight or flight and turn on your relaxation response. In other words, find some time to relax as often as that is available to you. A hot bath, a 5 minute rest under a tree, some meditation, yoga or a slow walk on the beach. All of these kinds of activities help you switch gears, down regulating your nervous system and helping you stay more centred and grounded over the long term.
Some global facts:
As mentioned above, Stress-related illnesses can encompass a wide range of physical and mental health conditions. These conditions can vary based on factors like gender and age. Here’s a general overview of stress-related illness trends in men, women, and children globally up to 2021:
Women have often been reported to experience higher levels of stress and are more likely to seek medical help for stress-related symptoms. Stress in women can contribute to a variety of health issues, including:
Their Mental Health:
Anxiety disorders and depression are commonly associated with stress in women.
Chronic stress can contribute to an increased risk of heart disease and hypertension in women.
Stress might affect menstrual cycles and contribute to conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Men might be less likely to report experiencing stress, but they can still be affected by stress-related illnesses, including:
Chronic stress can increase the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure in men.
Men might be less likely to seek help for mental health issues related to stress, leading to conditions like anger problems or substance abuse.
Stress can contribute to digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in men.
Stress in children can manifest differently from adults, and it can have both short-term and long-term impacts:
Children might exhibit behavioural changes, such as irritability, mood swings, or withdrawal.
Stress might lead to physical symptoms like headaches, stomach-aches, or sleep disturbances.
Chronic stress can impact a child’s academic performance and social interactions.
It’s important to note that stress-related illnesses can be influenced by a variety of factors including genetics, environment, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare. Additionally, the prevalence and impact of stress-related illnesses can change over time due to evolving societal and lifestyle factors.
For the most up-to-date and specific figures, I recommend consulting reputable sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO), national health agencies, and academic research studies on stress-related health trends.
Bob Brotchie is a counsellor, mindset consultant and creator of "Conscious Living by Design"™. He writes for Anglia Counselling, is featured on various other websites and introduces us to many guest writers all covering topics related to mental health and wellbeing.
Bob provides bespoke counselling services to individuals and couples in the privacy and comfort of a truly welcoming environment at his Anglia Counselling company office, located near Newmarket in Suffolk, England. Bob also provides professional online counselling, for local, national, and international clients. The therapeutic models offered are bespoke to the client’s needs, especially those in receipt of 'childhood emotional neglect' (CEN), whilst integrating a mindful approach to psychotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) principles. For clients experiencing trauma and/or phobia, Bob offers EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing).