Stress – the biggest barrier to a happy and healthy life?

Stress has become increasingly common as a concept and issue for many people over the last 15 to 20 years. Although people undoubtedly experienced stress before then, it wasn’t highlighted as much as it is in today’s busy society. It has become an increasing problem, and is estimated to cost in the region of £3.7 billion to businesses each year in the UK alone. (This is the figure given by the Health and Safety Executive, other figures vary, and the overall cost of anxiety, depression and stress is estimated to be £26 billion a year!) This may be an overall view of the cost to the country and businesses, but what about the various costs to the individual? Some of these ‘costs’ include diminished health – mental, physical and emotional, lowered self esteem and confidence, relationship issues, and reduced life satisfaction and expectancy.

Stress is believed to be a factor (either contributing or exacerbating) in a large proportion of illnesses and chronic health conditions. So what is it, how does it work, and what can we do about it?

What is Stress?

Stress is a natural reaction to external events that are perceived to be a threat, and is commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is a process whereby the body prepares for action – fighting an attacker, or running away, and as such is a necessary inbuilt self preservation mechanism. It happens incredibly quickly and involves the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, from the adrenal glands. Heart rate increases, and blood is pumped to muscles ready for action, and away from less urgent functions such as digestion and brain functioning. Blood is also diverted from the surface of the body, to minimise the impact of potential injury, and endorphins are produced to lessen potential pain. Once the action has been taken – the enemy is defeated, or you have run away to a safe distance, the response gradually shuts off and your body systems return to normal. There is also the possibility of the ‘freeze/stuck’ response, where in response to extreme threat, trauma or terror, the body ‘freezes’ in the sense that it is rigid and does not move. This can be seen in nature in the behaviour of birds, snakes, and possums when attacked (as in playing possum – pretending to be dead). Many predators rely on movement to see their prey, or lose interest in attacking something if it seems to be dead. These instinctual responses are inbuilt, and are amazing examples of our natural ability to keep ourselves from harm.

The problem arises when the stress response is activated due to seemingly minor events such as being caught up in traffic, sitting an exam, or not being able to find something – these are not likely to be life threatening. There can also be a problem when the stress response is continually being triggered and doesn’t have time to switch off, which can ultimately lead to chronic fatigue, burnout and immune system depression. Our bodies are not designed to be on continual alert, they need to recuperate. This is necessary for normal cell functioning and regeneration, and combating illnesses and injuries. Problems can also occur when there is no outlet or course of action in response to a particular stressor. If we cannot fight it or run away from it, what do we do?

What is deemed to be stressful is very subjective and is different for everyone. What may be stressful to one person, may be comfortable or even thrilling or exciting to another – e.g. public speaking, or bungee jumping.

An individual event/task may be stressful to someone if they believe it is too challenging for them to deal with, with the resources they think they have at their disposal. They may not feel capable of dealing with it, and they may not believe they have the skills or resources – including time. E.g. if someone were asked to organise a wedding in 6 weeks – a wedding planner with a huge budget, lots of staff, contacts, and years of experience, might respond differently to the challenge than someone with a meager budget, no helpers and no clue as to where to start or what to do. A lot depends on how well equipped we feel we are to do the job. Note that it is not necessarily how well equipped we actually are that impacts our levels of stress, but how well equipped we think and feel we are. If we feel pressured, incapable, and unable to control or influence an outcome we can easily become stressed. If we feel confident and optimistic about our abilities and the ultimate outcome we are less likely to be stressed. Another aspect influencing our likely stress response is whether we care about the outcome. It is often the case that diligent people who want to succeed at something, but who believe for whatever reason they are unable to, will become stressed if they cannot succeed. Some people on the other hand are not attached to, or invested in, the outcome, and do not let it affect them – they don’t care. I am not advocating ‘not caring’, but do suggest that emotional investment in something is relevant and appropriate. It can be useful to ask yourself “Does it really matter?” Some things do, some things don’t. This, again is something for the individual to decide.

Another form of stress which is rarely mentioned is internal stress.

Internal stress can occur when there is internal incongruence or disharmony – this is often expressed in speech in terms of ‘On the one hand I want to ….., but on the other hand I’d like to…’, or ‘One part of me wants…, another part wants…’. This internal disharmony creates internal stresses, or in-fighting, which all takes energy and puts a load on the system – emotionally and physically. These internal seeming dilemmas can often be easily and quickly resolved using NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) techniques such as ‘Parts Integration’.

In summation –causes and factors of the stress response:

Triggers – There is generally a trigger or stimulus which initiates the stress response, it will often have some meaning that you have assigned to it in the past, and which causes a negative response.

Perceived difficulty versus perceived resources – If it’s easy it can be boring; if it’s difficult it can be exciting/challenging; if it seems impossible it can be stressful.

Feeling pressured – feeling put upon or not having sufficient time to do something.

Perceived lack of control – If you feel you can’t control/influence the outcome, but still feel responsible for it, this is likely to create stress.

Not reacting in the moment – logically or emotionally. ‘Emotional baggage’ can often influence the stress response – you can feel stressed because you believe the same negative thing is happening again that happened before. This may involve blurring of past, present and future.

Cumulative effect – The straw that breaks the camel’s back – again, not reacting to the individual thing that has happened in the moment, but it all becoming ‘too much’.

Overload – caring too much about everything, not prioritising or delegating or leaving things.

Inaction, and worrying (depression) – knowing that you have not taken action can put more pressure on you.

Emotional response – expressed/repressed. If feelings take over, you can’t think (the brain is using the primal limbic system over the rational, thinking frontal cortex)

Things which may stress us initially, are often an opportunity to grow and learn new skills and master new challenges. Each time we do this our confidence and self esteem grow. We feel capable and build our belief in our resourcefulness and abilities. A certain amount of stress can be a good thing, but debilitating stress is not.

How do you know if stress is a problem for you?

Some of the impacts of stress are listed below:

Mental – lack of clear thinking/decision making, worrying, and procrastinating (freeze/stuck response).

Emotional issues – tetchy, irritable, angry if stress is expressed, reacting out of proportion to events, and, if stress suppressed – depression/isolation

Physical – burnout – stages of chronic stress – ‘wired’, ‘wired and tired’, ‘tired’(Chronic fatigue)

Immune system suppression – implications of its own, let alone the impact on other conditions

What can be done?

Change it:

Remove/reduce the stressor

Renegotiate, if possible or necessary

Change your response to it – how you think about it, and what you do.

Evaluate it – How important is it to you?

Put it into perspective – will it matter in a month, 6 months, or a year’s time?

Think of stress as a process that you do, rather than a thing that you have. Work out how to do it less.

Look at personal boundaries – are your values or sense of self being imposed upon?

Speak your piece (calmly and reasonably) – don’t put up/suffer in silence, and then implode/explode!

React in the moment – resolve emotional baggage

If you feel your ‘buttons being pushed’ – look at this as vital feedback indicating something for you to deal with/address. You are in control of how you react.

Regard it as an opportunity to grow; learn from it

Address any relevant limiting beliefs “I’ll never…..”, “I can’t…” etc

Envisage a successful resolution – a full sensory experience – what you would see, hear, feel etc.

Draw on knowledge of your previous resourcefulness and successes.

Take action:

Gain more skills/resources (including time – renegotiate deadlines, if possible)

Be flexible, be creative – look for a number of options (where there’s a will there’s a way)

Take control, have a strategy, make a plan

Take action on what you can influence – stop worrying about what you can’t. Take one step at a time.

Get help – delegate, get actual support, moral support. Accept help!

Supporting actions:

Breathe!!! When stressed breathing can be shallow, deep belly breathing can help de-stress

Relax – meditate, spend time in nature, have a massage, practice yoga

Dance/exercise – burn off excess cortisol (if not, it can crystallise in the body e.g. lungs)

Laugh – often

Avoid stimulants

Avoid sedatives – these can mask what’s happening

Sleep, hydrate, and eat well – in general look after yourself.

I hope the above information is helpful in reducing your stress and taking you a step closer to happy and healthy living. If you do feel you require extra help or information, please contact me – I am a trained Health Dowser, NLP Master Practitioner, and Energy Therapist.