Stress is the physical or emotional response to demanding situations. It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed and is often trigged by the inability to cope with life’s pressures, new challenges, change / transitional periods, or a situation in which we have no control over. What you may not already know, is that stress is not always harmful, and can actually be helpful, and serve you in many ways. For instance, stress may propel you to complete a task within a tight deadline, and when exposed to this level of stress, it can help to deliver peak performance. A bit of stress is normal and can be good, but too much can lead to anxiety, depression, and other health problems, so how do you know when your stress is harming you, rather than helping you?
When feeling stressed, the body goes into fight or flight response, and releases hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol to help deal with perceived threat / danger. Exposure to high levels of stress for too often or for too long can have a negative effect on the ability to cope with life’s stressors, making you feel overwhelmed and increasing negative emotions. Repeated activation of the stress response, over a period of time can lead to chronic stress and can have significant effects to the physical and psychological health of individuals.
Common signs and symptoms of stress
Symptoms of stress may be physical, psychological, and behavioural.
You may feel:
You may experience physical symptoms including:
- Tension headaches
- Body aches and pains
- Gastrointestinal disruptions
- Digestive problems
Behavioural signs that you may be stressed:
- Changes to appetite
- Clenching your jaw
- Grinding your teeth
- Sleep disturbances / problems
- Drug or alcohol misuse
- Social withdraw
Understanding the stress response
Everyone responds to stress differently, and your capacity to do so can be referred to as your stress mindset, which measures your perceived psychological stress in response to a situation. Did you know that your perception of stress has a significant impact on how it affects you? The way you view stress can dictate your response and subsequent action. For example, if you view stress as harmful, it can diminish your ability to cope in ways that are helpful. So, how can you shift your mindset so that that you can consider stress to be helpful? Taking the perspective that stress can be positive, you can re-frame your belief around stress, as a tool for rising to the challenges which can assist in how you cope during stressful situations.
Recognising your stress response may look different for each of you. It could be a racing heartbeat, feeling anxious, or maybe a clenched jaw. It’s important to acknowledge what you are feeling and how it’s affecting you. You can do this by tuning into your body’s early warning signs that alert you that your stress is kicking in.
Ask yourself, “What are the sources of stress”? Once we identify the sources of stress, you can develop helpful ways to manage and deal with it.
Everyone encounters stressful situations, so it’s important to learn how to manage your stress in healthy ways. So, how can you manage stress?
Exercise provides many psychological benefits, just as it provides physical benefits. Exercise can be used to manage stress, as it reduces the stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are the body’s feel-good chemicals, and boosts positive emotions, making you feel happy, content, and calm. Research suggests that participating in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day can decrease tension in the body, boost your mood, and help to counter stress. Some aerobic exercises to implement into your day to manage stress can include walking, swimming, cycling, and rowing.
Many, often disregard the need for a good night’s sleep. But sleep is essential for your health and wellbeing and can reduce stress. Sleep decreases cortisol levels and helps to replenish energy, recharge the brain, and regulates mood, allowing you to better cope with daily stress. Enhancing your sleep quality and getting the optimal 7-8 hours of sleep each night is best to reduce stress and is needed for a healthy mind and body.
When feeling stressed, mindfulness can be used to engage in our senses, foster calmness, and ease the mind. Mindfulness is a state of focused attention on the present moment and is an effective stress management technique which encourages you to tune into your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness brings awareness to the mind, body, and breath, and has been proven to dial down the body’s response to stress. Research highlights that when you practice mindfulness it can change areas of the brain that are associated with stress, emotion regulation, complex thinking, and perception. Practising mindfulness for 10-15 minutes can put you in a positive, relaxed state, which can alleviate stress and improve your overall wellbeing.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and finding it difficult to manage your stress, you may benefit from reaching out to a professional for support such as your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or a GP.