What is stress and how to reduce it
Clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Keyes explains what stress is, the key signs and symptoms, and outlines five strategies for managing stressful situations.
What is stress?
Stress is a state of worry or anxiety and a natural response to the challenges and perceived threats we face in our lives. We all experience stress to some degree. There are many factors that may trigger stress, including external pressures such as work or family responsibilities, and internal influences such as what we eat and how our digestive, immune and nervous systems are working.
How does being stressed affect my body?
Stress triggers a set of biological responses. These may include:
- The release of stress hormones
- An increase in blood sugar
- Elevated blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
Combined, these make up the ‘fight or flight’ response, and are designed to help you meet physical challenges that may pose a threat to your survival (for example, how your body would respond if you were being chased by a lion). The trouble is, in today’s high-stress culture, this response is almost continual and the body does not have a chance to recover.
How does stress affect my hormones?
Glands called the adrenal glands are nestled on the upper inner surface of each kidney – these produce the main stress response hormones: adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Chronic stress causes the adrenal glands to become overworked, and as a result they may not produce the right amount of these hormones. Over time, this may lead to endocrine disorders like Grave’s disease or metabolic dysfunction, resulting in obesity.
Does making the right food choices help when you are stressed?
Eating a balanced and healthy diet is key to managing the physiological changes caused by stress. An important part of any stress response includes identifying and reducing the causes of stress. However, because our adrenal function is significantly influenced by blood sugar levels, much of the dietary advice focuses on stabilising blood sugar.
How can I tell if I am stressed?
Whilst we all experience stress differently, you might notice several of the following:
- Physical signs – frequent headaches, difficulty sleeping, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, sore muscles, nausea or upset stomach, diarrhoea or constipation, a general sense of fatigue, loss of sex drive, frequent colds.
- Cognitive signs – trouble concentrating, memory difficulties, poor judgement, worry, anxious thoughts, confusion, indecisiveness and loss of sense of humour.
- Emotional signs – feeling agitated and unable to relax, feeling overwhelmed, feeling unhappy/depressed/moody, feeling irritable and short-tempered.
- Behaviour change – eating more or less than usual, sleeping too much/too little, using alcohol/cigarettes/drugs more than usual, habits such as nail-biting or skin picking.
What can trigger stress?
There are infinite potential triggers and we all have different tolerances for how much stress we can manage, so the perception of pressure is key. Stressors can be external ones (psychological such as experiencing a traumatic event, social such as a separation, or environmental such as a house move) or internal ones (such as an illness). Sometimes the sheer number of demands compared to perceived ability to cope can trigger stress. How we react is influenced partly by genetics, as we can have an over or underactive stress response, and by life experiences of trauma, neglect and abuse.
5 strategies for managing stressful situations
Experiencing stress is part of life and sometimes we cannot change the situation, but we can learn to identify what stresses us and manage their impact. Find new ways to cope so you do not rely on unhelpful methods such as drinking alcohol, overeating, and smoking.
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1. Identify triggers
Write a list of all the sources of stress in your life right now and rate them out of 10. Prioritise the things that need to be done first and consider if you can avoid any unnecessary stress delegating to others, dropping tasks that aren’t really necessary, and learning not to take on additional tasks. Break any tasks that seem overwhelming into smaller chunks.
2. Consider lifestyle
Ensure you are eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise (to run off excess stress hormones and help you sleep better), and getting plenty of sleep.
3. Create a balanced schedule
Set aside allocated time for the activities and people that bring you joy and fun, by learning to say no to demands that create additional stress in your life.
4. Develop daily relaxation practice
Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, or walking. Even a few minutes a day can help reduce the physical symptoms of stress.
5. Alter expectations to stressors that cannot be changed
Practice gratitude and reframing how you see the problem. Adjust your standards if you are a perfectionist. Ask yourself if this will matter in a month or year from now. Acceptance of things that are out of your control can mean you are free to focus on the things you can control.
Help with long-term stress
If stressors are unavoidable and ongoing, you may learn helpful ways of coping through:
- A clinical psychologist may help you make changes using acceptance and commitment therapy or practising mindfulness.
- Invest in a Biofeedback kit. This is a non-drug treatment in which, with the use of electrical sensors, you can learn to control subtle bodily processes including muscle tension, blood pressure and heart rate.
- Certain supplements have evidence for reducing feelings of stress, such as ashwagandha.
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Dr Laura Keyes is a clinical psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and British Psychological Society (BPS). She runs a private practice offering psychological therapy and assessments for neurodiversity to children and adults in Bedfordshire: drlaurakeyes.com
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