Understanding and Managing Stress

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Office scene with a worker being shouted at by their manager.

Stress serves an important function for human beings, and has played a big part in our survival. Stress was necessary to our ancestors, as it helped them to avoid physical danger by triggering the “fight-or-flight” survival mode.

When a threat is perceived, the body releases hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, and our fat cells and liver dump sugar into our blood streams. Our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase, so that the energy released into our blood can reach our muscles quickly. All of this prepares the body to take action, and can increase our chances of escaping the danger and surviving.

The fight-or-flight response was clearly helpful at a time when humans were at risk from attack by predators or other physical dangers. The stress-related changes on our bodies only lasted for a very short period, giving us a quick physical boost to escape whatever was threatening us.

But what happens when these physical changes are triggered by situations which are not actually life-threatening, and we activate the survival mode in response to events which are only threatening us psychologically (e.g. feeling stressed by our jobs)? In this situation, our fight-or-flight response, instead of only lasting for a few moments, becomes a chronic state of being. This can cause a whole host of issues for our bodies, including increasing our risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, as well as causing issues with our digestive system. It can lead to tension headaches and muscular pain, and can also cause mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Our minds and bodies are simply not designed to be flooded with stress-related hormones for prolonged periods of time.

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

We are all unique individuals, and this includes our tolerance for stress. It can be useful to think of this in terms of a “stress container” – if you have a high tolerance for stress, then your container will be large and can easily contain all of your life’s stress factors. However, if you naturally have a smaller stress container, you may be more likely to get overwhelmed by the stressful events in your life.

The good news is that people with smaller stress containers can still take steps to manage their stress levels. Helpful strategies and coping mechanisms, some of which are described below, can act like a tap which allows stress to flow out of the container like water.

However, it is worth noting that certain behaviours can block the tap or add more stress to the container, causing it to overflow. Unhelpful strategies such as working excessively long hours as a distraction, or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, might help us get through the day, but can end up making the problem worse in the long term.

This short video can help you to understand more about stress containers, and how to keep them from overflowing. You can also listen to mental health campaigner, Neil Laybourn, discuss how he handles stress.

Are you under too much stress?

As we have seen, chronic stress is damaging to us both physically and psychologically. So, what are some signs that we are under too much stress? The following descriptions may help you to recognise symptoms of chronic stress:

  • Emotional signs – irritability or tearfulness; having more arguments that unusual; loss of sense of humour; and loss of confidence.

  • Behavioural signs – consuming more caffeine, alcohol or cigarettes; feeling indecisive or unable to concentrate; and difficulty remembering things.

  • Physical signs – constantly feeling tired; frequent headaches or stomach upsets; and not taking care of your physical appearance.

Identify your stress triggers

If you recognise any of the symptoms above, and are concerned that you may be suffering from chronic stress, the next step is to identify the specific triggers which are responsible. Once you are aware of the causes of your stress, it will be easier to take steps to manage your stress levels.

As modern humans, there are many potential sources of stress in our daily lives. Life events such as starting a new job, getting divorced, suffering bereavement or having financial worries, can all cause chronic stress. Our surroundings can also increase our stress levels, for example living in poor housing or being socially isolated.

Try looking at the different areas of your life, such as work, home and relationships, to see if you can identify any situations or events which are causing you stress. It might be useful to keep a diary for a few weeks, and note down any time you can feel yourself getting stressed. This can help you to recognise any patterns in your stress reactions. This test can also help you to identify what your stress triggers are.

Self-care tips for when you are feeling stressed

If you feel that your life is getting stressful, and your stress container is in danger of overflowing, there are lots of ways to take back control. As with any life skill, you can learn new coping strategies, and these can help even if you have longstanding stress-related issues.

Here are some ways to keep your stress levels manageable:

1) Learn some breathing techniques

Certain breathing exercises can help you to relax and control stressful feelings. By learning some of these techniques in advance, you will be prepared to deal with stressful situations when they arise.

2) Get plenty of sleep

Switch off emails, social media and other technology by a certain time, dim the lights, and take some time to relax before going to bed.

3) Eat well and exercise regularly

Physical and mental health are connected, so ensure that you eat a balanced diet and do some exercise to get the endorphins flowing. You are more likely to do exercise if you enjoy it, so find something fun and do it regularly. This could be walking, playing tennis, swimming or throwing a frisbee in the park – the activity you choose is not important, as long as it gets your body moving and increases your heart rate.

4) Set aside some “me” time

Make sure that you take time to have fun or indulge yourself, as the positive emotions you get from this can help build a buffer against stress. Fitting time to relax into your daily life is also a great way to boost your mental health.

5) Practice mindfulness

It has been shown that mindfulness can help with stress, for example by making you more aware of the needs of your body. Mindful breathing or other techniques can help with this.

6) Share your feelings with others

It is ok to ask for help and support from the people around you. Talking about the issues which are concerning you, rather than bottling them up, can help to reduce your stress levels.

7) Focus on the things you can control

It can be helpful to look at the things that are stressing you, to see whether they are within your control. Stressing about things you have no power to change can leave you mentally exhausted. Instead, try to focus your energy on the issues within your control.

We hope that you will find some of these tips helpful in getting a handle on the stress in your life. If you feel that your stress levels are becoming problematic, please feel free to get in touch with us to see how one of our psychotherapists may be able to help.

Kathryn Perry

Image credits: https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/business

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