Stressing the obvious stress and its role in our lives
Everyone has experienced stressful situations in life, although different situations would be considered stressful by different people. Ironically, today’s modern world (especially the Western World) encourages a stressful lifestyle and, at the same time, promotes all sorts of ways to combat and deal with it. Stress is important to our survival. It is natural and necessary. For hundreds of thousands of years it has helped us – the homo sapiens species – survive in dangerous environments, learn to improve our existence and evolve in such ways as to become the most powerful species on the planet (and jump from the third place in the food chain to the first). It is therefore needed. But stress has often a negative ring to it. As mentioned earlier, the modern world and its pace of life has created a vast array of stressors that weren’t present only 100 years ago (let alone thousands of years ago). In fact, nowadays we often judge a person’s success by how busy and stressed they are. The neck-breaking pace of life encourages ‘busyness’ as if that were an indicator of level of happiness, contentment, success (let’s remember, that we all have different ideas of what success means to us. Whatever this means to you, it is unique to you and shows the values you hold).
Stress is not a feeling. It is a physical, mental and emotional reaction that causes bodily and mental tension. Stress can be external (from the environment, psychological or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). It acts on the body immediately and in response, the body deploys ways of dealing with it. The complexity of bodily responses to stress is astounding. We all know the symptoms of a dry mouth, shaking hands, a tunnel vision, sometimes even dizziness. This is all very natural as it prepares us for undertaking one of the two following options – to fight or flight. The most obvious thing that happens in a stressful situation is that the body releases two important hormones – cortisol and adrenaline. Both are well known, and both have different connotations. Adrenaline is often associated with a sudden surge of energy and strength. Things like coffee can make the body start producing it ‘on demand’. Adrenaline is normally produced by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, and some neurons in the central nervous system. This hormone will prepare you for a fight or flight –it gives a powerful rush of energy to get you out of harm’s way. It’s no laughing matter – it has helped homo sapiens survive to reach this point in its evolution. Adrenaline stimulates the heart to beat faster, increase blood flow to the muscles and away from the organs (if you have to run for your life you want as much blood in your leg muscles as possible and not in your stomach. Therefore, there isn’t much digestion going on in times of highly stressful situations). It gives you clarity of mind – you may have experienced it during interviews, exams, sports competitions, when you had to perform to your highest level. Adrenaline is truly amazing as it helps you perform well.
The trouble is, if your nervous system is constantly bombarded with different stressors (which, by the way, is just a way of life for a lot of us and few people ever question this), it will take its toll sooner or later. Your nervous system can’t keep working on overdrive without any damage caused to it. It’s often the immune system that suffers the most. Frequent headaches, infections, inability to sleep well, anxiety, depression and a host of other health issues may follow. It’s important to give your nervous system a break – go for a walk in the countryside, switch off your laptop/TV/music, breathe deeply, take a gentle exercise, read a good book. Again, our culture creates different stressors every day and at the same time, it comes up with hundreds of ways to manage it (often, they can be costly, but a walk in the country isn’t so do what is right for you).
There are other dark sides of adrenaline overdose and the nervous system overstimulation. But let’s now take a look at cortisol. Cortisol is another hormone (a steroid hormone) that is released in larger doses when we’re under pressure. It also has different functions – it regulates metabolism and immune system responses. Cortisol controls the levels of salt and water in the body which in turn influence blood pressure. It is made in the adrenal glands. Cortisol is usually associated with stress and has somewhat negative associations. This doesn’t give it justice as its roles are complex and very important to the healthy functioning of the body. However, the role it plays in dealing with stressors must not be underestimated. Just like with adrenaline, too much cortisol over a long period of time can lead to a plethora or health issues. Some of them are:
high blood pressure
a flushed face
urinating more frequently
changes in mood, such as feeling irritable or low
rapid weight gain in the face and abdomen
lack of sex drive and, in women, periods can become irregular, less frequent or stop altogether (amenorrhoea).
It is important to be aware of your stressors and the effects they have on you. Knowing yourself and your reactions will help you act proactively to manage stress better or even eliminate some of it altogether.
So, what is the best way of managing your stress levels? Find some tips below.
Know yourself. As mentioned above, the more aware of the stressors in your life you are, the better you can deal with them or even eliminate some for good.
Look after yourself – a healthy diet is paramount.
Get good quality sleep.
Exercise is important. It’ll take your mind of your current difficulties and strengthen the body and mind. Being active has a host of benefits on your mental and physical health.
Find ways to relax and unwind.
Learn how to deal with stress in a productive way – shouting abuse to other fellow drivers on the road will hardly be a healthy way to deal with such irritants.
Learn to let go – those things you can’t change are best left alone. Learn to distinguish between the things you can influence and things you cannot. Channel your energy productively and change the things you can.
Anger is particularly damaging to one’s health and good relationships. Anger can be a response to a stressor, an irritant, but it can also be a response to a ‘perceived’ threat. What we see through our own lens isn’t necessarily what there is, and we put our own emotional and psychological spin on it. Anger is one of the most basic human emotions. It is inexplicably connected with our survival. However, flying off the handle readily won’t win you friends and will play havoc with your health. Anger can also be misplaced - something a good therapist will be able to notice when working with a client who has this issue. What about anxiety? Anxiety can be triggered by stress being present in one’s life for a long period of time. It can also be a trait – some people are more prone to it than others. It can be debilitating if present for a long time and lead to some serious mental disturbances if not dealt with correctly. Anxiety is a response to a perceived threat in present or near future. It is different to stress as it is a persistent psychological and physiological state and, as mentioned before, stress is not a feeling. Stress can manifest itself in various different ways and lead you down different alleys that aren’t necessarily worth visiting (only briefly, if at all). There are other ways you could manage the consequences of stressful periods – by giving Hypnotherapy and CBT a go. Hypnotherapy will work with your subconscious mind to bring relief and re-educate you in how to keep yourself calm and composed. Hypnotherapy can promote better sleep, deeper breathing, calmer mind. CBT however (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), is a form of a talking therapy that is highly effective it treating different forms of mental and psychological issues through looking at the problem from a logical point of you, giving you tools to use in difficult situations and also, re-educating you to establish more positive behaviours, instead of the unhelpful ones you’ve been using (for instance, drinking alcohol when stressed and getting dependant on it in the long term which may lead to another serious problem). If you would like to try any of the therapies (Hypnotherapy and CBT), please get in contact. Until then, remember – you’re in charge of your reactions to different stimuli – not the other way around! Stay cool.