This week is International Stress Awareness Week.
The theme of the week is ‘Does Hi-Tech Cause High Stress’. It is a fantastic topic and one that I am looking forward to exploring. Technology has created lots of additional stress for us, it cannot be denied, but it also provides us with tools to help manage stress and organise our lives more effectively. I will be looking into both aspects of our relationship with stress, as well as offering tips and strategies to manage, throughout my blog posts this week.
Today, however, I wanted to look at stress, and to ensure that we are all reading from the same page when we talk about stress.
What is Stress?
The word ‘stress’ is used a lot in casual conversation nowadays. We use the word a lot. Life seems sometimes to be designed to keep us in a permanent state of stress. I wonder how many people understand the full extent of stress and the harm it can do?
When I look back at my own life, I see behaviour that I thought was ‘normal’ for me, but evidence of my poor character. With a deeper understanding of mental health, I know now that these were clear symptoms of stress and depression.
The definition of stress from Oxford Dictionaries is
A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances
It is important to note that this is not defining something that is inherentaly positive of negative – it merely states that stress is the reaction to something.
The nature of that reaction, and the impact it will have on a person, depends on factors unique to that person’s circumstances at the time. That perception is important. Research has found that if a person believes that the stress they are under will adversely impact their health, then it will, giving them an increased risk of premature death.
The Biology of Stress (the basics)
Stress is a function of the nervous system. It is the body’s way of protecting our life. It is how humans have stayed alive for millennia.
When we experience a threat to our wellbeing, whether real or perceived, the nervous system reacts immediately. The “sympathetic nervous system”, which controls the ‘flight or fight’ response, kicks in, and causes a series of physical changes in the body including
- Increased heart rate
- Raised blood pressure
- Tension in the muscles in readiness to run
- Heightened sensory perceptions
- The digestion slows down and tries to empty the bladder and bowel
- Sweat is produced
- The logical brain takes a back seat and allows the quick acting emotions to take charge
Some stress is vital for effective functioning in life, and in a short burst, these responses can feel good. Stress motivates and energises us, making us do the things that need to be done, and giving us a rewarding shot of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These stress hormones keep us alert, increase energy, boost the heart rate, and create mental focus.
This ‘good stress’ is what Hans Selye, the scientist known as the ‘Father of Stress Research’ termed ‘Eustress’. This is the “good stress” that drives humans to act. It is what keeps the part-time entrepreneur going when they are building a successful business while also working a full-time job and juggling family demands. It is what allows the Masters student to study and write essays through the night. It is what drives the ‘adrenaline junkies’ to get their kicks, and drives almost superhuman acts of bravery.
I am sure you can think of numerous more examples, I could write a whole essay listing ways that stress has created great things in human lives.
When stress becomes a problem
Selye talked about another form of stress. This is not so helpful. He termed it ‘distress’, and it is what we think of as stress during something like Stress Awareness Week.
The research about perception mentioned above is interesting, because stress is all about perception. The mind can’t tell the difference between a real threat in front of us and an imagined one. You only have to think about how scary a dark passage in your house becomes after watching a horror film to know this. You weren’t scared of the darkness before, you just turned the light on. After watching the film you had to grab your phone and shine a light into the passage before reaching your arm through the door to turn the light on!
I have caused myself to grieve while imagining the deaths of people I love. I have relived pain, shame and fear remembering things that happened years ago, feeling them in my body as if it was happening now. That is the strength of our perception – what we believe truly does shape our reality.
Whether it is perception or biology, it cannot be denied that stress is a huge problem in modern society. In the UK, stress in the workplace costs billions each year in lost productivity and health care costs.
Chronic stress is a factor in life impacting conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, addiction, IBS and other digestive disorders, and much more. Stress can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions and can lead to depression and anxiety.
Are you stressed?
When you are just getting on with your life, you might not, as I failed to, notice that you are demonstrating symptoms of stress. If life has been challenging for you for some time, as mine was, you may have adapted and be so used to, for example, insomnia, that you just accept it as part of your life. However, if you notice that you exhibit any of these symptoms of stress, and life seems to be a struggle, then you can look for ways to ease the pressure and reduce stress in your life.
- overeating/lack of appetite
- difficulty concentrating
- digestive issues
- lack of energy
- reduced desire to engage with friends
- lack of motivation
- excessive reliance on food, alcohol, cigarettes, social media etc
- high blood pressure
- high heart rate
- loss of interest in sex
I will look at strategies you can use to reduce stress and your perception of the negative impact of stress in tomorrow’s post, so do be sure to come back tomorrow.
Webinar – “Five Powerful Techniques to Help YOU Manage Stress Now!”
I will also be offering practical help and support in a webinar on 7th November at 7pm. The webinar is called “Five Powerful Techniques to Help YOU Manage Stress Now!”, and will cover breathing and relaxation techniques you can use to manage stress on a daily basis, as well as increase your resilience to stress ongoing.
You can register your place on the webinar here. Don’t worry if you are unable to attend live, as the webinar will be recorded and a replay available (this applies too if you are reading this after the webinar has taken place, you can still watch the replay)