Recognise and combat stress


What is stress?

We all experience stress; it is a normal response that we may experience to some extent every day. It’s our body’s reaction to something that makes us feel threatened or presents a challenge.

When you sense danger, whether it’s real or perceived, your body naturally goes into fight or flight mode. Your hypothalamus, located at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located above your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action.

Adrenaline increases the heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and makes substances that repair tissues more readily available. Norepinephrine stimulates nerve cells in the sympathetic nervous system and is responsible for baseline alertness.

Cortisol also curbs functions otherwise nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth. For our distant ancestors, this meant that they could either fight the wild animal chasing them or run very quickly away from it to stay safe.
Once danger passes, hormone levels return to normal, lowering blood pressure and heart rate to baseline levels and other systems resume their natural processes.
There can be a tendency to demonise stress, but it is not always harmful. Good stress allows you to stay alert and focused, such as slamming on the brakes so you don’t hit a child suddenly crossing the road in front of you or motivating you to meet that pressing deadline.

The difficulty is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations or enters into a state of chronic stress. When your body keeps directing blood flow to your muscles most needed to fight or flee this can impair your brain function. Chronic stress increases the risk of anxiety, cardiovascular disease, depression, digestive problems, headaches and sleep problems.

Recognising stress

Stress presents itself in a number of ways. The below lists are not exhaustive but looking through them will help you identify if you are already under stress or recognise it the next time it presents.

Physical symptoms:

  • Blurred eyesight or sore eyes 
  • Chest pains 
  • Constipation or diarrhoea 
  • Feeling nauseous, dizzy or fainting. 
  • Headaches 
  • Increased blood pressure 
  • Indigestion or heartburn 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Problems getting to sleep, staying asleep or nightmares 
  • Sexual problems, such as losing interest in sex or being unable to enjoy sex 
  • Shallow breathing or hyperventilating 
  • Teeth grinding or jaw clenching 
  • Tiredness 

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Difficulty making decisions 
  • Forgetfulness 
  • Loss of concentration 
  • Negative thoughts/worrying 

Potential behaviours:

  • Addictions
  • Avoiding situations and isolating yourself 
  • Being tearful or crying 
  • Constantly worrying 
  • Eating too much or too little 
  • Nail biting 
  • Restlessness or not being able to sit still 
  • Self-harm 
  • Snapping at people

Combating stress

So now we know what stress is and what it looks like, what can we do about bad stress?

Generally, feelings of stress come from a combination of two sources: the environment around you and your way of dealing with that environment (your personality. Something that is extremely stressful for you, such as public speaking, may be completely enjoyable for someone else.

Ofter it is not possible to change the external source of stress, but you can change is how you react to it.

Develop an awareness of how it shows up for you physically and mentally.

Identify your triggers, as this helps you anticipate problems and think of ways to solve them. This might be issues that come up regularly, one-off events or ongoing stressful circumstances.

Address what is causing you stress, take practical steps to improve or resolve the issues that are putting pressure on you such as booking an appointment you have been putting off or tackling overspending to reduce financial pressure.
When you encounter stress, try to take a step back. Take a moment to recognise where it is showing up in your body and be aware of your thoughts. You could consider the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, journaling, or tapping to help you with this process. Choose how you want to respond to the stress and what practical steps you are going to take. Accept what you cannot change. Finally, make sure you recognise your efforts in confronting the stress.

Other ways to combat stress include:
  • Asking someone for help 
  • Contacting a friend to speak about how you feel
  • Doing something that will make you laugh
  • Doing something relaxing such as having a bubble bath or massage
  • Exercise, such as yoga or going for a run
  • Fostering healthy friendships
  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Organising your time effectively
  • Seeking professional help
  • Setting aside a worry time each day to work through what is causing stress
  • Taking regular breaks
  • Taking time to engage in hobbies like colouring, gardening, listening to music or reading
  • Using essential oils

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