A word about stress
Everything you need to know about stress and its management
Before I explain what stress is, I want to start by saying that our 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 can be motivating, helping us to focus and get something done, according to the International Stress Management Association no amount of stress is good for us.
Excessive pressure or demands can become overwhelming and, experiencing such situations for too long, will have a detrimental impact on our mental and physical health.
On this page, I answer
What do we mean when we say stress?
Just like the word mind, there is no single definition of stress but usually when we talk about feeling stressed we mean circumstances that put pressure on us and/or our reaction to being under pressure.
It's like carrying a backpack
Everyone 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 is 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.
I believe if we can learn what it feels like when the backpack is getting too heavy (recognise our personal symptoms of stress) and what we can do to manage the load then we can take responsibility for our mental and physical health.
What happens to the body when we are stressed?
It's helpful to view the stress response - also called the fight or flight response - 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.
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 increases in heart rate, 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, 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 around? You just need to run.
Once the threat or difficulty has passed, the response is dialled down 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 illness.
How does stress affect us?
Stress is known to impact our thinking, feelings and behaviour.
How you may feel mentally
Constant worrying or ruminating
Difficulty making decisions
How you may feel emotionally
How you may feel physically
Muscle tension or pain
Tired all the time
How you may behave
Avoiding situations that are troubling you
Drinking or smoking more
No interest in socialising
Snapping at people
What can you do to manage stress?
In a coaching session, I use this 3-step formula to gain clarity and consider options. The initial focus is dialing down the stress response so that you can think clearer about the situation.
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.
They usually focus on slowing your breathing, especially the out-breath, which signals to the body that we are safe and work by helping you to focus away from the triggering challenge.
2. manage your stressor
Now that you feel a little calmer, let's take a helicopter view of the stressor and think about what actions you might take to remove, reduce or make peace with it.
3. manage yourself
Next have a look at how stress is manifesting and what you are doing to cope. Are your actions helping or hindering you?
Things to consider are how you are sleeping, what you are doing to relax, what you're saying to yourself and others about what's going on as well as what you're eating or drinking.
Reminder: 5 ways to well-being
What if it's work-related stress?
Work-related stress, anxiety and depression is the number one cause of occupational sickness absence in the UK.
Research has found six factors that cause work-related stress which can be prevented, mitigated and managed through a stress risk assessment (1).
Managers have a duty of care to protect 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.
Would stress management coaching help?
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 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 coach gives you the opportunity and the time to explore with someone else what is going on for you and what solutions there might be.
Explore: what is worklife coaching?
How does mindfulness help manage stress?
The stress response is part of the autonomic nervous system which means we have no control over it being triggered.
We can, however, notice when the response is being activated and take appropriate action to turn it down or off.
To manage ourselves in this way means we need to learn our stress signature and monitor how things are for us and that's where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness courses teach how 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.
As our self-awareness grows, we begin to use our thoughts, body 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 we need to ask for help.
Read: All about mindfulness
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1. In the UK, employers have a legal duty to protect employees from work-related stress by doing a stress risk assessment and putting in place measures to protect workers. Read: Work-related stress and how to manage it (HSE website)