How many times have you said or heard someone else say say ‘I’m so stressed’?
We use the word ‘stress’ loosely. Many times what we describe as stress is a bad day, and really all we want is to chill. Basically, ‘stress’ is just another word for ‘annoyed’ or ‘hassle’.
But more and more ‘stress’ isn’t just an alternate word, it’s something we face every day. It’s a constant in our lives that keeps us awake at night, on edge through the day, and fills us with tension and fear.
Do any of these phrases sound familiar?:
- ‘I’m worrying all the time.’
- ‘I just can’t concentrate on anything.’
- ‘I can’t get organised.’
- ‘My memory is terrible these days.’
- ‘I don’t feel good about myself.’
- ‘I’ve got a hundred things to do, I can’t start any of them!’
- ‘Little things throw me into a panic and I find myself gasping for breath.’
These are all symptoms of stress. But stress doesn’t only manifest on the surface. It causes physical symptoms, too. Do any of the symptoms below sound like you?:
- ‘I get more headaches than I used to.’
- ‘I get dizzy for no reason in the middle of the day.’
- ‘My digestive system is going nuts, I always have heartburn or indigestion.’
- ‘I’ve been sweating when it isn’t hot, or shivering when it isn’t cold.’
- ‘I can’t get to sleep my mind keeps racing, when I do sleep, I have nightmares.’
- ‘My face and eyes twitch when I’m under pressure.’
If these symptoms sound familiar, you’re probably under more stress than you think – stress that’s damaging your health, now and in the long run.
Why is it a Problem?
In small amounts, stress is necessary. Lots of things cause short-term stress, even things we enjoy, like board games, challenging tasks, a DIY home project, or video games. These situations cause fun ‘stress’ that leads to a feeling of satisfaction, a challenge overcome, a job well done, or a game well played.
Stress can sometimes be good for us. For example, if we’re finding it hard to pay the bills, we might respond by asking for a raise – or finding a better job!
The problem comes when we’re stressed most or all of the time – especially at work.
If the trend continues, most adults will be suffering from high blood pressure in a few years because of coping mechanisms such as drinking, overeating or not getting enough sleep.
Because when stress continues, it doesn’t only take a psychological toll – damaged relationships, problems at work, and poorer quality of life. It also takes a physical toll that can lead to serious conditions like coronary heart disease.
What is Stress?
Doesn’t it seems strange that something as intangible as stress can have such a dramatic effect on our health, our lives, and society as a whole? But it can, and it does, which is why we need to understand it and learn how to deal with it.
There’s more than one way of defining stress, but here are two of the most useful.
- Stress is what happens when we feel that demands we have to meet are bigger than our ability to deal with them, so we feel ‘out of our depth’ or ‘at the end of our rope.’
- Stress is an adverse reaction we have to a lot of pressure or other demands placed on us.
In other words, stress is based on the way we look at our lives. If we think we can cope with pressures, demands on our time, our abilities and our money then there’s no problem. If we can’t, we feel stressed.
Why Physical Symptoms?
The answer to the question is in our history.
Years ago, when we were less ‘sophisticated’ than we are now, If we were confronted with something threatening, we had two possible responses. To stay, and fight – or to turn and run. Fight or flight.
Although we’ve evolved, we still have those same fight or flight instincts. That’s good except for the fact that our systems can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. So even if the threat is something we’ve been thinking about our response is the same – fight or flight.
And the results are physical!
- Your heart starts to beat faster, carrying oxygen and nutrients, clearing away waste products so your muscles will have the blood supply they need for intense physical effort
- As your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises
- Adrenaline and other hormones are released, to give you the energy you’ll need, raising your awareness, and sharpening your response
- Your liver releases stored sugar for more energy
- Your pupils dilate to let in more light, so you can see more clearly
- All your senses become sharper and more efficient
- Your muscles tense, ready for action
- Blood flow to your hands and feet is restricted, so they stay cool
- Your body gets hotter as your blood pressure rises, and you start to sweat in an effort to cool off
And yet nothing physical has happened. You’ve simply imagined, remembered, or anticipated something your subconscious sees as a threat!
You’ve also started to program yourself with this response to a particular stimulus. Which means that the next time you have the same thought, you’ll respond in the same way – faster, and more intensely.
You may even start to worry about the response – which increases your stress levels even more. The result: unpleasant physical symptoms. Palpitations. Muscle tension pain. Insomnia. Breathlessness. Numbness. Tingling. Dizziness. Sickness. Fainting. Headaches. Indigestion. Diarrhea. Fatigue. Chest pains. Blurred vision. Nausea. Shaking and more.
The good news is that once you understand stress, and recognise it, you can easily manage it.
Stress comes from a particular set of behaviors we learn and repeat. Fighting back means learning – and repeating – a different set of behaviors that will reduce stress and restore calm.
Here are some first steps to help you manage stress:
- Learn relaxation techniques! Relaxation is the opposite of ‘fight or flight’. Meditation, progressive muscular relaxation, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, or even dancing can help you to relax
- Learn about your stress ‘triggers’. Keep a journal where you write down things that make you tense up or start to worry, and the things that make you feel relaxed and happy.
- Take stock of your lifestyle. Are you eating and drinking sensibly? Do you exercise enough? Vigorous exercise is a great way to get rid of tension that builds up when you’re stressed!
- Develop strategies. Think about what you do now to stay calm. What could you do better? What strategies could you add to your arsenal?
Managing stress starts with knowing what’s stressful to you. We all have different triggers and ways of managing our stress.
Sometimes, when I’m working, I realize that my shoulders are incredibly tense. Unconsciously I’m raising them toward my ears, so that when I’m finally realizing this, my body is in a truly awkward position. I’ve realized that it happens when I’m unsure of or feeling stressed about a project.
What I do is take a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, then as I release my breath I relax my shoulders. That simple act gets me back to neutral, relaxes my body and helps clear my mind so I can keep working. without causing myself harm.
I encourage you to keep a journal and become more aware of how you’re dealing with stress. You’ll be happy, in many ways, that you took the time.