The stress response - 'fight or flight'When we get stressed, the capacity of our heart and lungs increases, digestion slows, we produce glucose to fuel our muscles, our impulses quicken, our sight sharpens and our perception of pain diminishes. Our immune system mobilizes with increased activation and our body sweats more to cool our muscles. All of these responses allow us to fight harder, run faster, see better and breathe easier.
The fight or flight response allows us to go through life using a modest amount of energy while keeping a reserve of energy for emergencies. If nothing caused you stress or excitement, life would be dull. So small amounts of stress are good. However, when we experience one stress event after another, life can become a series of short-term emergencies. Prolonged stress can lead to physical or mental health problems.
What causes stress?There are many things that may lead to stress including physical attack, emotional worries, etc. Being able to identify what causes your stress is often the first step in learning to manage it. Different people are affected by different things, but stress can generally be classified in terms of internal and external stressors.
Internal stress is stress that comes from within us and is often the most common cause of stress. We often worry about things we cannot control (e.g. whether we are going to lose our job) and we actually put ourselves into situations which we know will cause us stress. Other common internal causes of stress include thoughts and feelings which cause unease such as unrealistic expectations, uncertainty and low self-esteem created by lack of assertiveness and negative self-talk. Some people become addicted to feeling stressed and actively seek out stressful situations. They may also feel stressed about things that aren't stressful to most of us.
External stress comes from the environment. Anything from noise, overcrowding and pollution to relationship/financial problems, major life changes, pressure from work/family or daily hassles. For instance, working too hard or not managing your time well can take its toll.
How does it affect us?Stress can vary in degree and manifest itself in many ways from how we feel physically and psychologically to how we behave. As stress takes hold, a variety of symptoms can result.
Stress can have a major impact on every part of our being. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Are you stressed?You may recognise some of the symptoms below. Indeed, if you suffer from five or more of the following symptoms then you may well be suffering with stress.
- Obesity and overeating
- Increased or excessive drinking of alcohol
- Loss of appetite
- Smoking more (if you smoke)
- Increased coffee consumption
- Excessive and continuing irritability with other people
- Substance abuse
- Difficulties making decisions, large or small.
- Inability to concentrate
- Increased and suppressed anger
- Feeling out of control and unable to cope with life
- Jumping from one job to another without finishing things
- Excessive emotion and crying at small irritations
- Lack of interest in anything other than work
- Permanently tired even after sleep
- Decreased sex drive / libido
- Nail biting
Identifying how stress affects youIf you're not sure how stress affects you, it might be an idea to keep a stress journal. A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, write down the following in your journal and as you do, you should start to see patterns and themes emerging.
- What caused your stress (if you are not sure hazard a guess)
- How you felt, both physically and emotionally.
- How you responded.
- What you did to make yourself feel better.
Positive ways to manage stressStress is a danger to our mental health and it makes us more vulnerable to physical illness too. It is often a matter of how we think in different situations and how we view stress that causes us problems. Here are a few techniques you can use to help manage stress.
- Assign a rating to your stressor, with 1 being a minor hassle to 10 being a catastrophe. By doing this you should find that most of the problems you encounter rate somewhere in the 2 to 5 range and this will help you get things into perspective.
- Compose a short, positive statement that focuses on your coping abilities. By repeating your mantra 'I feel calm, I can handle this' it will help relieve your stress.
- Don't be a victim and don't give up at the first sign of stress. Focus on being proactive and don't wallow in self-pity.
- Write down your stressors/problems (in a journal perhaps) and list possible solutions and then try them out.
- Schedule 'Worry Time'. Some stressors have to be dealt with immediately but many can be dealt with later. Write down your stressors and then assign a time later to think about them so that you control your worries instead of them controlling you. Remember, most things that we fear often do not happen.
- Say 'no' and be clear about your limits. Stop trying to please everyone all the time.
- Make plans and organise your time so that you are not constantly in a hurry and have something to look forward to which provides calming perspective.
- Forget about it. Once you've done your best to deal with a situation, avoid speculating about the outcome.
- If you find a problem or task too big then break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks so that you don't feel overwhelmed.
- Don't try to be perfect as this may create unnecessary stress in your life. Don't be too hard on yourself or overly critical but instead learn from your mistakes and move on.
- Resist comparisons with others as this can destroy your confidence and create stress. Instead make your own standards against which you set future goals for achievement.
- Visualise success. By focusing on your strengths and not your weaknesses you can build confidence and minimize stress.
- Look at problems as opportunities for improving yourself.
- Seek professional help. Talking to a counsellor, CBT therapist or psychologist may help you identify the problems that create stress.