Everything you need to know about stress and its management
The stress response is a normal, biological reaction to situations that feel threatening. That said, we should be concerned about the detrimental impact stress can have on us mentally, physically and emotionally.
A little pressure can be motivating. It can help us to focus and get something done.
However, excessive pressure or demands can quickly become overwhelming and, experiencing such situations for too long will have a negative impact on both our mental and physical health.
In short, no amount of stress is good for us.
What do we mean when we say stress?
Just like the word mind, there is no single definition of stress.
Generally when we talk about stress we mean circumstances that put pressure on us and/or our reaction to being under pressure, especially when we feel that the demands made of us are beyond our ability to cope.
Here is the Health and Safety Executive's definition:
Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them
Each of us responds to challenging situations differently.
You might say each of us has a personal stress threshold, the point at which things start to feel too much for us.
This explains why what might cause an issue for one person may not bother another.
I liken it to carrying a backpack.
If it feels light then you can walk for a long while but as it gets heavier you are going to need to rest every now and then and, if it’s really too heavy for you then you will struggle to move forward at all.
If we can learn what it feels like when the backpack is getting too heavy (recognise our personal symptoms of stress), we can find ways to manage the load and look after our mental and physical health.
What happens inside the body?
It's helpful to view the stress response - also called the fight or flight response - as the body's alarm system.
Made for survival, when we feel we threatened (psychologically or physically) this inner alarm is triggered and it rings throughout our body, preparing us for action. It continues to ring until feel safe again.
Whether it’s positively motivating us to meet a deadline, encouraging us to rise to a challenge or exciting us to try something new, we will feel it in both body and mind as it readies us for difficulty.
No matter the trigger, our system floods with hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – in preparation to fight or flight.
These hormones cause our heart rate to increase, blood pressure to rise and our breath to quicken delivering extra energy to our muscles.
At the same time, other functions which are not needed but using energy we need to mobilise, like digestion, are switched off.
That’s why you might feel butterflies in your stomach or lose your appetite, when you are feeling under pressure, worried or nervous.
Astonishingly too the thinking, problem-solving part of the brain is turned off. Who needs to think when there's a tiger around? You just need to run.
Once the threat or difficulty has passed, the stress response is switched off and the physical effects fade.
But if you are constantly stressed, the body stays pumped up in a state of high alert and over time you will develop stress-related symptoms and illnesses.
How does stress affect us?
Stress is known to impact how we think, feel (physically and emotionally) and behave.
How you may feel mentally
Struggling to make decisions
Unable to remember things
How you may feel physically
Muscle pain, tension
How you may feel emotionally
How you may behave
Avoiding situations that are troubling you
Eating too much/little
Snapping at others
What can you do to manage stress?
In my coaching and training sessions, I share a 3-step model to help people regain a feeling of safety and control.
The initial focus is to dial down the stress response so that you can think more clearly about how to deal with the situation or issue.
Next we need to look objectively at the issue that is causing you to become stressed and finally we look at ways you can help yourself feel and cope better.
1. manage the body
If you are not running for your life (or someone else's) you do not need stress hormones running around inside, pumping you up, switching off the thinking part of the brain and jeopardising your health.
So, the first step is to help the body turn down the stress response. Doing so will help you feel calmer and bring the logical, thinking brain back online.
Simple exercises, sometimes called grounding practices, are used to do this. Designed to give you respite, they take your focus away from the triggering issue or challenge.
They often focus on slowing your breathing, especially the out-breath, which signals to the body that we are safe.
2. manage your stressor
Now that you feel a little calmer, let's take a helicopter view of the situation and consider what actions you might take to remove or reduce it.
3. manage yourself
Next have a look at what you are doing to cope emotionally. Are your actions helping or hindering you?
Things to consider are what you're saying to yourself and others about what's going on, what you are doing to relax, how you are sleeping, as well as what you're eating or drinking.
What if it's work-related stress?
Stress, anxiety and depression caused by issues at work are the number one cause of workplace sickness absence in the UK.
The UK Health and Safety Executive recognises six factors that can cause work-related stress if they are not adequately managed.
Factors known to cause work-related stress
Managers have a duty of care to their colleagues. But they can only take action when they know that someone is struggling, the onus therefore is on employees to speak up.
Whilst it is hard to admit that you are not coping well and can not do your job (I know, I have been there). It is in both parties interest that you are fit for work.
How stress management coaching helps
One of the things that happens when we are stressed is we become myopic in our view of things.
We are effectively so lost in the forest of what we have to deal with that the trees blend into one and things can feel pretty lonely and dark.
Whilst this is natural (we are designed to deal with threat through single focus), it is unfortunate, as we cannot take the necessary helicopter view to find our way out.
Working with a stress management coach gives you the time and space to explore what is going on for you and what solutions there might be to resolving or reducing the issue that you find stressful.
Are you struggling to manage stress?
If stress is having a negative effect on your ability to do your job and/or your personal life, it's time to take action.
I can help you regain clarity and a sense of control. To explore how we might work together get in touch Nothing changes if nothing changes.