Stress is an unavoidable part of modern life. We are all affected by everyday stressors such as traffic jams, pressure at work, financial difficulties and issues arising within our relationships. We all feel overwhelmed at times, and our bodies can be under stress even when we are not aware of it.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives various definitions of stress; one of them is “effort, demand upon energy”. We can see from this that sometimes stress can be good for us; we can enjoy making an effort and putting our energy into, for example, a sport or hobby that we love, spending time with friends or family, or even at work when the process is challenging or the end result rewarding. We also need a measure of stress to keep us alert, for example when cooking or driving. We call this kind of stress “eu-stress”, meaning good stress, when adrenaline is flowing because we’re excited, joyful or being creative. However, even eu-stress is not meant to be prolonged, because adrenaline and its cousin noradrenaline are actually intended to enable us to be ready to respond to situations through flight or fight by raising our blood pressure and increasing our heart and perspiration rates. And even with eu-stress the hormone cortisol can be released, causing excess fat and sugar to flow into our systems to enable us to survive in the short-term without food, but in the long-term affecting our digestion and compromising our immune systems.
The opposite of eu-stress is “di-stress”, meaning bad stress. This occurs when we feel at some level under threat but can’t run away or fight back, or our attempts at doing so don’t work. We may be under continuous mental or physical strain because of external stressors such as extreme ongoing pressure at work, a difficult boss, falling into debt, or a relationship breakdown. These stressors may lead to physical difficulties such as exhaustion, insomnia, and loss of appetite and/or the beginning of mental symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, forgetfulness, indecisiveness and loss of confidence. If these symptoms are not addressed the stress may enter a second phase of psychosomatic symptoms such as heart palpitations, excessive sweating, headaches or indigestion. In the third phase the problems manifest even more somatically with organs such as the stomach, heart or lungs beginning to sufer, and in the fourth phase we may find ourselves at risk of strokes, heart disease, or even cancer. At any point in the process our mental health may worsen too and we may face severe depression or mental breakdown brought about through heightened anxiety.
If we were impacted by prolonged external stress very early in life, such as abuse, bullying or other trauma, illness, abandonment, neglect or the loss or absence of a parent, we may have internalised the stressor and feel under a constant internal threat or pressure. This can lead to chronic anxiety or depression, loss of self-esteem, obsessions and/or addiction, and we may find ourselves experiencing the same mental and physical symptoms as those described above.
How then should we start to manage our stress and change our lives around? The first step of course is to recognise that we are suffering from stress and to make a commitment to changing things. This might be as simple as making a few lifestyle changes such as getting more exercise or conversely more rest or “down” time, or changing our eating habits/ food choices, as some foods put the body under stress and contribute to the problem, e.g. highly processed foods, sugar, alcohol, stimulants such as tea and coffee, and acidic foods such as red meat and dairy products. Another important step might be to take a look at what time we could make for mind-balancing and calming activities such as meditation, mindfulness practice or yoga, and introducing these into our daily lives. Could we, for example, spend a little less time on our phones or computers? We might need to enrol on a specially designed stress management course; at The Well Being Therapy Centre we offer 6 week bespoke stress management training, a unique combination of counselling, mindfulness and body work. If, however, you have been suffering from stress for a long time, or the issues causing it feel complicated or internalised as described above, then you may need the help of talking therapy. We are here to offer that help; please contact us and we will endeavour to place you with one of our team as soon as possible so that work can begin without delay on alleviating your stress and reversing its damage.