The Fundamentals Series - What is stress?

By Jill Domoney

Stress is the body’s physiological and emotional response to pressure. A bit of stress is a good thing- it can motivate us and increase performance. But too much stress can have an adverse effect both on physical and mental health.

In evolutionary terms the stress response is our bodies' automatic survival mechanism which kicks in very quickly when we perceive a ‘threat’. This stimulates the body and helps energise us to fight or run away- the 'fight or flight response'. Heart rate and breathing increase to get more blood and oxygen to the brain and the large muscle groups, so your muscles tighten and your senses become more alert.

When this system is working well, it helps you remain focussed and energetic, whether this is to slam on the brakes to prevent an accident or keep you on your toes during a presentation.

However, this system was designed to be used for short periods only. A constant high level of stress can cause problems as the body doesn’t have an opportunity to go back to its normal state, but has to remain in a state of high alert. When this system is ‘on’ a lot of the time your body adjusts by making it easier to activate and harder to turn off. In the short term, this may cause headaches and sleep problems, and make you restless and tense. In the long term this can increase risk of heart disease, raise blood pressure and suppress the immune system, as well as making you vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

The ‘threats’ that we face today may be very different to those faced by primitive humans when our stress response originally evolved. However, the key factor is that we perceive some kind of danger, whether this is a threat to our physical selves (e.g. someone pushing us in the pub) or to our sense of self (e.g. someone telling us we haven’t done a good job). Crucially, the threat which stimulates a response doesn’t only have to be external (e.g. boss giving you more work when you’re already overloaded). It can also come from our own minds (e.g. telling yourself you’ve got too much to do or that you can’t cope). The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats, but reacts just as strongly whether you’re worried about a barking dog in front of you or the thought that you’ve forgotten something important.

What makes us stressed?

Why do different people get stressed by different things? High pressured situations, financial problems or major life changes may be stressful for everyone, but while some people seem to thrive under pressure others feel overwhelmed by small frustrations. There are a number of reasons for this, including biological, environmental and cognitive factors.

Biologically, we are all born with different temperaments. Some people are very outgoing and confident, while others are more introverted and cautious. This can effect how you deal with stressful situations and is likely to lead to different lifestyle choices in terms of jobs and hobbies.

Environmentally, if you have a good support network of friends and family around you, then stressful situations may seem more manageable. Additionally, having a place to go that’s quiet and relaxing where you know you can get away from it all can help to cope when you feel overwhelmed.

Finally, there is lots of evidence that our response to stress is mediated by our cognitions, or thoughts, about a situation. As noted earlier, our bodies react to internal threat cues in the same way as external cues. Typical thoughts in pressured situations are ‘this is too much’ ‘I want to get out’. These thoughts are interpreted as threat by the body and lead to a stress response. Noticing the changes in your body can lead to more negative thoughts such as ‘I can’t cope’ or even ‘people will see that I’m stressed’. These thoughts are stressful themselves so lead to increased reaction by the body, creating a vicious circle between thoughts and body response.

What can we do about it?

Making changes to our habitual ways of responding can be difficult as detailed in the New Years Resolutions Article (LINK). It means doing things differently and thinking differently.

The first step is identifying what it is that makes you stressed i.e. your triggers. Are there certain situations or people who always leave you feeling stressed? This may be meetings at work, heavy traffic in the morning, relationships with specific people, or even watching the news in the evening.

Once you have an idea of what your triggers are, ask yourself if it is possible to avoid or alter the thing that is stressing you. Are there ways you can change your daily routine, take on less responsibility or ask for help with difficult tasks? Learning how to assertively say ‘no’ when things are too much and removing yourself from situations which make you feel uncomfortable are empowering and positive ways to take control over your levels of stress.

However, there are many stressful situations which are not so easy to change. In these situations, changing your expectations or attitude can help to regain a sense of control.

When you feel yourself getting stressed, pause, take a breath, and ask yourself what it is that you’re reacting to. You might want to ask the following questions: What am I predicting is going to happen? How realistic/ helpful is this thought? What advice would I give to someone else in this situation? Asking these questions can help you to take a step back from the emotional part of you and get more perspective on the situation. You might find that similar thoughts or attitudes often come up when you’re stressed. For example, do you always expect perfection from yourself or other people? Are most of your thoughts negative and pessimistic? Are you worried about negative evaluation or judgements from other people? Are you blaming others or feeling resentful? Noticing these attitudes is the first step in challenging and changing them. It can also be helpful to think of someone you know and admire who would react differently to you. What sort of thoughts do you think they would have in the same situation? You can then think more clearly about what you want from the situation, whether you can do things differently, and what would be the most helpful and effective thing to do. This will help you to take rationale, positive action rather than reacting to your body’s response.

Finally, nurture yourself! Planning things into your week which give you a sense of enjoyment or achievement helps to make you feel good about yourself, ensures your bodies’ stress response is not constantly on, and recharges your batteries to deal with situations you can’t change. Getting exercise, eating healthily and spending time with people you care about are fundamental in increasing your resistance to stress as they strengthen your physical and mental health. This can help to reduce the impact of stressful situations and enable you to cope better with the symptoms when you notice them.