A word about stress

Before I outline what stress is, I want to start by saying that the stress response is a normal, biological reaction that occurs when we encounter situations that threaten us in some way.

That said, we should be concerned about the detrimental impact stress can have on us mentally, physically and emotionally. 


Whilst feeling challenged is motivating, helping us to focus and get something done, excessive pressure or demands can become overwhelming and, experiencing such situations for too long, can affect our mental and physical health.  

Everyone responds to stressful situations differently because each of us has a personal stress threshold, the point at which things start to feel too much. This is why what might cause an issue for one person may not bother another. 


It's like carrying a backpack

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. 

Related: Simple ways to lighten the load


I believe if we can learn what it feels like when the backpack is getting too heavy (recognise our personal symptoms of stress) then we can strengthen our resilience and take responsibility for our mental health.

The stress response: the body's alarm system

What do we mean by stress?

Usually when we talk about feeling stressed we mean situations or events that feel challenging to us and/or our reaction to that pressure.

What happens in the body?

The stress response - also called the fight or flight response - can be thought of as the body's alarm system. Primed for survival, when we feel we threatened (psychologically or physically) an inner alarm is triggered that rings throughout our body. And it continues to ring until we are safe. Even if it’s positively motivating us to meet a deadline, encouraging us to try something new or exciting us as we partake in an extreme sport, we will feel it in both body and mind due to its evolutionary purpose - to ready 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 for response and are 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, anxious or nervous. Astonishingly too the thinking, problem-solving part of the brain is turned off. Who needs to think when there's a tiger in the area? Once the threat or difficulty has passed, the physical effects usually fade. But if you are constantly stressed, your body stays in a state of high alert and you develop stress-related symptoms.

How does stress affect us mentally, emotionally, physically?

As well as affecting us on a physical level, stress affects our thinking, feelings and behaviour. Learning what our invidivudal stress signature is means we can take action to How you may feel mentally Constant worrying or ruminating Difficulty concentrating Difficulty making decisions Racing thoughts How you may feel emotionally Anxious or fearful Depressed Irritable Lonely Low self-confidence Overwhelmed How you make feel physically Clenching your jaw Grinding your teeth Headaches Muscle tension or pain No appetite/over eating Sleep problems Tearful Tired all the time How you may behave Avoiding situations that are troubling you Comfort eating Drinking or smoking more No interest in socialising Procrastinating Snapping at people

How mindfulness can help

The stress response is a function of the body, in particular, the autonomic nervous system. This means we cannot stop it from happening.


We can, however, notice when the response is being activated and take appropriate action to turn our stress response down or off.

Learning mindfulness teaches us to attend to our experience in an objective and non-judgmental way. From such an observational viewpoint we can intentionally take wise and purposeful action, releasing us from a sense of overwhelm.

In time, as our self-awareness grows, we use our thoughts, sensations and feelings as early warning systems.

With practice we can respond to challenging situations in ways that take care of us, as well as recognise those times when one more item will result in us needing to put the rucksack down or ask for help to carry it.


Thinking learning mindfulness might be useful to you?

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Charting progress, logging reflections

as I sail my ship in and out of work

by Tracey Hewett