Stress is experienced by all people of all ages, from children sitting exams at school, adults dealing with issues in their personal life or workplace, through to older people perhaps contemplating retirement or living with illness or infirmity. Stress is often described as a feeling of being overloaded, wound-up tight, tense and worried. Day to day activities can give rise to stress, and while a little stress is good — it keeps us focused and motivated — too much of it and it can have a significant impact on our daily life. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed you may become frozen and unable to deal with events or situations.
Stress happens when we feel that we can’t cope with pressure and this pressure comes in many shapes and forms, and triggers physiological responses. The ‘fight or flight’ response is a built in or hard-wired reaction to perceived threats to our survival. At times of danger, the body’s innate intelligence automatically takes charge by triggering a set of changes that bypass our rational thoughts. Priority is given to all physical functions which provide more power to face an enemy or to flee. To understand why stress can have negative impacts on your health, you must first understand the physiological changes that occur within your body during the fight or flight response. It is also important to take into consideration your thought processes, or psychological response to stress. The fight or flight response is also evident in those experiencing anxiety or panic disorders, and can be much more severe and debilitating for some people.
Fight or flight
The fight or flight response was first noted by one of the early pioneers in stress research, Walter Cannon. In 1932 he established that when an organism experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive. In humans, as in other animals, these hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure – delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. Breathing is accelerated to supply more oxygen for conversion to energy. The heart moves into overdrive to supply the body with more oxygen and nutrients. Attention and sight become acute and highly focused. This physiological aspect leaves us fully prepared to fight or run. Our sympathetic nervous system has been aroused, adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine (3 stress hormones) have been released in our body, and we have an acute stress response. The inherent fight or flight response can be triggered by seemingly less life threatening events. Many day-to-day situations can set it off – a change of home, a difficult boss, divorce, separation, demanding children, traffic jams, the fear of terrorism etc.
Symptoms of Stress
While the physical changes help us try to meet the challenges of the stressful situation, they can cause other physical or psychological symptoms if the stress is ongoing and the physical changes don’t settle down. These symptoms can include: • Headaches, other aches and pains • Sleep disturbance, insomnia • Upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhoea • Anxiety • Anger, irritability • Depression • Fatigue • Feeling overwhelmed and out of control • Feeling moody, tearful • Difficulty concentrating • Low self-esteem, lack of confidence • High blood pressure • Weakened immune system • Heart disease (Australian Psychological Society)
Coping with stress Today many of us don’t take enough physical exercise to ‘burn off’ the effects of our response and we’re left with stress build up. We learn to control our reactions, but this does not counteract the stress response. Furthermore, some adopt unhealthy coping methods to deal with stress, turning to over-eating, alcohol or drugs. Stress management is key to developing positive coping mechanisms and reducing your stress levels.
Here are some tips:
1. Learn to identify your early warning signs and triggers. This is very much about taking stock of your past experiences with stress and working out what affects you! Learn from your past experiences, note how you reacted physiologically and psychologically, and increasing your awareness when similar patterns arise again. Also learn from coping strategies that you have used in the past that may or may not have worked for you.
2. Keep your body healthy. Eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water, eliminate or minimise caffeine and alcohol consumption, partake in regular exercise. Adopt exercise as a coping mechanism to manage stress. Remember, exercise can help to calm your sympathetic nervous system that has been activated by stressors.
3. Practice relaxation. Mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, listening to music, gardening, or any other activity that you enjoy and brings you calmness. During stressful periods in your life, when you mind and body is racing and pacing at what seems a hundred miles an hour, relaxation techniques will help slow the pace and allow your body mind and body to take some time out.
4. Keep your creativity alive. Many people focus on the intellectual/structured side of their personality, with careers, raising children, paying off mortgages, all requiring a level of discipline and structure. Although structure and routine is important when managing stress, it is sometimes not conducive to relaxation and a fulfilment of the creative side of our personalities. Finding balance is important. Think about your creativity and perhaps hobbies or activities that will satisfy this component of your personality. Art, painting, cooking, flower arranging, building model planes or ships, for example, will give you an outlet for your creativity, and an opportunity for relaxation.
5. Stay connected. Spend time with people you care about and who care about you. Social connectedness is essential for wellbeing. Enjoying the company of family and friends, and sharing your thoughts and feelings and talking about your stress is a positive coping mechanism. Oftentimes, people who are feeling stressed will keep things to themselves, for fear of being exposed as not coping, and subsequently experience isolation. Positive relationships will give you positive results. Do not turn away from them!
6. Take note of your ‘self-talk’. These are the thoughts in your head that can be positive or negative thoughts. Often when we are stressed we tell ourselves we cannot cope, we are tired, we have no time, or similar statements that compact our feelings of being overwhelmed. Take note of these thoughts and turn them on their head, for example, ‘I’m coping well considering everything I have on my plate’, ‘I will keep breathing and stay calm’. Our ability to cope with our stressors is not only dependent on our physiological responses but also our psychological responses.
7. Find your balance, A balanced life will build your resilience and hence your ability to cope with stress. There is a great deal of talk about work/life balance, and most of us are aware that we need balance in our lives, however, today’s fast moving world, and sometimes economic considerations, makes it challenging to find the right medium. Stephen Covey (1989) identifies four dimensions of wellbeing: the physical, spiritual, mental and social/emotional. To achieve optimum wellbeing you to all areas that give meaning to your life.
8. Learn to say no. Stress can often be a result of taking on too much, whether it be in your professional life, personal life, caring responsibilities or other responsibilities. We often take on too much because of feelings of obligation, duty, and sometimes guilt, and not being able to say ‘no’. Knowing your limits and what you are or are not capable of taking on at any given time is important. Saying no is also about setting boundaries. We cannot be all things to all people. Set your priorities, set your boundaries!
9. Seek advice from a professional. It is important to recognise when it is time to seek help from a counsellor or psychologist. If your stress levels have been high for a prolonged period of time and affecting your health and enjoyment of life, seek help. Seeing a professional will give you an opportunity to talk about your feelings and they will also support you to develop identify your stressors and develop positive coping mechanisms and a stress management plan.
If you would like to make an appointment to see one of Vital Health’s psychologists, Val Townsend, Susan Bourne or Rhia Forsyth, call 9545 6939. You may be eligible for Medicare rebated. See your GP for a referral and Mental Health Care Plan,
The Australian Psychological Society has a great fact sheet on stress. Visit: https://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/StressTipSheet.pdf
If you require urgent crisis support call Lifeline: 131114