Now we’ve all been there, stuck in a state of worry, facing a situation we can’t easily seem to resolve. It doesn’t feel nice does it? No doubt it would take you only a matter of seconds to recall a list of episodes in which your heart rate quickened as you got caught up in a frenzy of stress. But what actually is stress, and is it actually as ugly as it first seems? For an event that is unfortunately common in most of our lives, the concept of stress is actually surprisingly difficult to define. Putting it as simply as possible, stress is deemed to be the body’s response to physical, mental or emotional pressure. However, even this broad description fails to truly capture the complexity of its experience. When we are faced with a situation, our brain’s must first take in the information and combine it with memories stored from previous events. Often on an unconscious level, our brains will then make a split-second decision as to whether the occasion is deemed ‘stressful’ or not. Over evolution, humans have developed a sophisticated neural circuit throughout the brain, responsible for coordinating an automatic stress-response. All this really means is that although the cause of our stress can vary, the brain regions responsible for how we go on to respond will usually be the same.
Whilst what happens in the brain may seem complicated, the typical symptoms we experience as a result will be all too familiar… Our brains trigger what’s become known as the ‘Fight or Flight’ response; mobilising our bodies to react in a manner that ultimately helps us to survive. Your heart rate will quicken, blood pressure will drop and your muscles become tight. This is your body detecting a threat in the environment and preparing you for whatever else comes your way. As you’ve probably already detected, despite the popular attitude that stress is unhealthy, its experience can actually be a useful tool for helping us to overcome difficulty. That’s not to say you should revel in stress and seek out opportunities to exhaust your mind, but rather to highlight that there is more than meets the eye with stress and things that we can actually be thankful for! Interestingly, this goes beyond just the body, extending to psychological benefits such as resilience and motivation. Research has shown that daily exposure to moderate stress can actually strengthen the cells in our brain, protecting it from stress-induced damage in the future. Many people are also spurred on by added pressure, with stress heightening their sense of awareness and fuelling any efforts they exert to succeed. In short, stress in itself is not actually ugly. It’s the response we show if it’s not controlled, managed or coped with, that can lead to the negative examples you probably have stored in your mind.
Thankfully, there’s been a large amount of research so our understanding of how to manage it is relatively strong. As with most things however, not all tips and tricks will work for everyone all the time; it’s about working out what strategies best suit you, the situation and the solution you are ultimately after. We are all armed with an automatic hard-wired response that can help us in difficult situations, but it’s up to us to consciously decide what techniques will help us through them. Left unchecked, stress can be our undoing, escalating the situation beyond our control! However, with the right coping strategies in place, stress can be that added bit of energy we need to overcome a challenge and a marker for how best to respond in the future...
Everyone has stress in their lives, caused by a range of different factors. Having healthy coping strategies in place can help you keep this stress to a manageable level and respond in a more productive and beneficial way.
THE STRESS SERIES
To help you to implement more effective coping strategies into your day, we’ve compiled together several activities for you to try. By practicing these techniques next time you face stress in your lives, you will find yourself beginning to respond to challenging situations in a far more advantageous way.
The root cause of our stress tends to orientate around being overwhelmed, under pressure or unable to cope with the demands set on you. That’s why our first stress coping strategy focuses on planning ahead and pre-empting stressful situations before they materialise. Try to plan out your day in advance by writing out a list of the key priorities before you leave the house. Beside each entry set a deadline time or date that the tasks need completing by, so you can keep track of what’s actually a necessity.
There will be occasions where the cause of our stress is out of our control. Whether it’s the demands imposed on us by a boss at work, a close friend or family member, there will be circumstances where they cause you to become overwhelmed. Rather than pushing on silently however, try to remember that they too may be feeling pressure from someone else. It is important to communicate to those that are contributing to your stress in a human way - in the knowledge that they may well be feeling the same.
Because humans like certainty in situations, we quickly become irrational and panicked in scenarios that we feel are outside of our control. That’s why one of the most common symptoms of stress is to lose your sense of objectivity in your thoughts. We must therefore develop ways to pull ourselves out of these spirals, allowing us to think in more rational ways. Rather than allowing stress to overwhelm you, remind yourself of how far you’ve come so far and the positive lessons you can take from this bump along the way.
Sometimes our stress arises from unjust pressure we put on ourselves and a warped perception of what truly matters. When we care about the outcome of something, this can cloud our judgement; losing our sense of what’s actually important. To highlight what really matters to you, draw a column down the centre of a page in a notebook. Within this, list out all the things that bring you joy in life. Next time you’re feeling stressed, turn to this column of personal assets to put things into perspective and serve as a reminder of what holds you up in life.
Stress isn’t something to avoid intensely as it can be a force for motivation and good. The problem arises if stress is left unmanaged and is allowed to spiral into overwhelming negativity.
Blog Author: Ben Oliver - Feb 8th 2021