We all know what it feels like to be stressed. The symptoms can vary from physical to mental or behavioural changes. The trick is to know what your own stress reactions are.
Common physical symptoms of excess stress include sleep disturbances or changes in sleeping habits, muscle tension, muscle aches, headache, gastrointestinal problems, and fatigue.
Mental symptoms can include excess worry, a “short fuse”, bad temper, forgetfulness and feeling overwhelmed. Other are becoming easily frustrated; feeling frequently close to tears; lack of motivation.
Some people experiencing excess stress will increase unhelpful habits such as smoking, drinking, overeating and social withdrawal. Pre-existing medical conditions can also worsen during times of stress.
What is stress?
Stress is a pre-historic response is rooted in a part of the brain called the Hypothalamus. An external trigger, or stressor, such as a traffic jam or a tight deadline, stimulates the release of chemicals that tell your body to either stand and fight, or run for it’s life. This is known as the “fight or flight” response.
When this happens, blood is drawn from the brain and stomach and sent to larger muscle groups; adrenalin is released into the bloodstream; your heart and lungs work harder; your eyes dilate and you begin to sweat. The level of fats, cholesterol and sugar in your bloodstream increase, your stomach secretes more acid, your immune system slows down and your thinking shifts into survival mode.
This stress response was designed to protect our hunter-gatherer ancestors from immediate danger such as predators. It has not adapted to the more unrelenting mental stressors of modern lifestyles – such as job insecurity, mortgage or rent stress, an unforgiving boss, information overload and family issues.
It’s not difficult with our modern lifestyles, to be constantly bombarding our bodies with stress reactions and therefore producing chronic overloads of adrenalin, cortisols, fats and sugars into our bloodstream, with debilitating consequences.
Our fight and flight reflex was designed to allow us to defend ourselves or escape. But today it’s not acceptable to punch your boss or run away from the person you are talking to, even through the same physiological reactions may be occurring in our body. Unless the cause of the stress is dealt with (often by a process of negotiation) – or the stress reaction is calmed – our body stews in it’s own juices!
So how can we counter-balance the effects of stress?
The first step to managing stress is awareness. Being able to recognise your stress reactions enables you to intercept them.
These tips can help you manage your stress levels.
- identify your own stress reactions
- know your own triggers and be prepared for stressful events
- notice your self talk – when we are stressed we have an internal dialogue which can keep us in the stress loop, things like “I can’t cope”. Practice helpful self talk to counter these negative thoughts – try “I’m coping well given what’s on my plate”.
…Part two of our Natural stress management story is coming soon…