April is National Stress Awareness month and so I think it is fitting that this months blog is focused on stress.
Stress is the response we typically have to pressure-be this in the form of threats or demands. Stress is often experienced as unpleasant and in some cases overwhelming. Stress isn’t a psychological diagnosis but chronic stress can lead to psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.
What is Stress?
So what exactly is stress? Stress is often the result of feeling under pressure in some way, perhaps from demanding situations (such as work, moving house or raising a family) or adverse events (such as a relationship breakdown, family illness, bereavement). When we are stressed there are a variety of physiological changes happening in the brain and body, often linked to sympathetic nervous system and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis which releases hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. These physiological systems prime us to respond to threats in particular ways (e.g. fight, flight, freeze). These physiological changes are biologically rooted and in small doses can help us be focused and alert. However in the long term stress can lead to fatigue, difficulties concentrating, irritability, insomnia, headaches, digestive discomfort (like upset stomach or IBS) and can sometimes trigger problems in relationships as stress can make it more difficult for us to connect to others.
There are many things that can cause stress and what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another so it is very idiosyncratic. However people are living very fast paced pressurized lives and somehow this seems to have become the norm and in fact is often praised and valued. However pace and pressure can very quickly lead to stress and stress should not be the norm if we want to be psychologically, emotionally and physically healthy.
So if we don’t want stress to be the norm what we can do to buffer ourselves? Firstly I would encourage you to pay close attention to your wellbeing which means taking time to notice how you are doing in both your mind and body. If we are not checking in on ourselves we might easily miss signs that we are stressed and we don’t want to get to the point where our body and mind are shouting at us before we stop and listen. Mindfulness has really helped me tune into myself in a much more intimate way so it’s almost impossible nowadays for me to ignore what is happening in my mind and body which means I get to see early warning signs of escalating or chronic stress.
What can we do to reduce stress?
So what do I do when I notice my stress levels rising? Well sometimes external changes need to be made. There was a time in my life when I was juggling far too much and it was simply unsustainable, I needed to slow down and ‘un–busy’. I was surprised at how hard this was-not actually at a logistical level but at some deep emotional level I felt lazy and guilty (I think largely through social conditioning and probably some unrelenting standards I had developed). However as I started to better understand the impact of too many demands and too much pressure and when I really saw how normalized and reinforced this is in British culture I started
slowly to ‘un-condition’ myself to this overly busy pressurized existence. It took time but I now feel much more comfortable living a healthy pace of life-although it’s still something I have to pay close attention to as it is so easy to slip back into old patterns!
I don’t want to imply however that we can always easily change the sources of stress in our lives. Sometimes we can’t and it’s at these times that we benefit from emotional resilience. I have a concern that many people equate resilience with ‘just getting on with it’ which I think couldn’t be further from the truth.
I worry that statements like these may unintentionally hinder people from seeing and addressing the causes of stress in their life thus potentially creating a vulnerability to chronic stress, burnout and mental health difficulties. It is also very common for people to try and manage their stress through behaviours such as drinking alcohol and comfort eating which is understandable as people often associate these types of behaviours with relaxation but sadly they often have negative unintended consequences attached (like alcohol reducing our quality of sleep leading us to feel more stressed) and do little to help our physiological stress response.
So what can we do to build resilience? Well the good news is there are many things we can do and I will write another blog focusing on this subject very soon but for now I would like to draw your attention to a concept developed by Professor Dan Siegel and Dr David Rock called the Healthy Mind Platter. The Healthy Mind Platter outlines seven daily essential mental activities for optimum mental health and when we have optimum mental health we often have increased resilience to stress. These seven activities are outlined below…
When we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, we take on challenges that make deep connections in the brain.
When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, we help make new connections in the brain.
When we connect with other people, ideally in person, and when we take time to appreciate our connection to the natural world around us, we activate and reinforce the brain’s relational circuitry.
When we move our bodies, aerobically if medically possible, we strengthen the brain in many ways.
When we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, we help to better integrate the brain (e.g. mindfulness/meditation – Siegel calls this mindsight)
When we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, we help the brain recharge.
When we give the brain the rest it needs (researchers suggest between 7-8 hours sleep a night), we consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day.
The key, Dan Siegel and David Rock point out, is balancing the day with each of these activities and there is no prescriptive amount of time we should spend on each one but they do caution against focusing on one at the detriment to any of the others.
One final note, I don’t want to suggest small amounts of stress are bad for us and none of us can escape stress in our lives but we can make changes to try and prevent chronic stress and we can build emotional resilience so we buffer ourselves when stress does come our way.
Written by Dr. Olivia Thrift – registered Counselling Psychologist and founder of The Psychology Company.