What is stress?
Stress is to be in a state of mental or emotional pressure resulting from perceived demands. Day to day we experience many demanding circumstances which our bodies can treat as ‘threats’ (e.g. excess workloads and taking care of our family). Our bodies are hard-wired to react to stress to protect us against threats from predators. When we experience a threat, our brain’s hypothalamus sets off an ‘alarm system’ in the body – the fight, flight or freeze response.
This response releases hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure and boosts energy. Cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream which enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also reduces the immune, digestive and reproductive systems. Once the threat has passed hormone levels go back to normal and the body goes back to usual. However, if stressors continue and you feel threatened still, the stress response continues. We are built to handle short-lived stress but we are not built to handle chronic stress in this way.
Are there different types of stress?
There are three different kinds of stress that psychologists have identified:
- Acute stress – is caused by the daily pressures and demands that we all experience. This tends to last for a short time. Sometimes the stress is felt after the event as emotional distress or physical discomfort.
- Episodic stress – stops/starts in ‘episodes’ and is often due to demands and unrealistic goals. Found in ‘Type A’ personalities who tend to be more competitive and demanding. Repeated stress episodes can lead to depression/anxiety/worry which in the long-term can lead to Coronary Heart Disease.
- Chronic stress – prolonged tension from internal or external stressors, causing health problems and a suppressed immune system. These are stressors that you cannot have a break from, such as significant caring responsibilities or a career with repeated exposure to trauma.
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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This article was updated on 27th September 2022.
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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