What Is Stress?
Stress is a normal physiological response to a real or imagined danger. A danger can be a risk of physical harm or emotional harm.
The Stress Response
It is important to notice that the actual stressful event is merely the (potential) stressor. It does not create the stress. Our interpretation of the stressor and response to this is what creates stress. Basically, after we have appraised the situation (accurately or inaccurately) our body then automatically generates a stress response, which is basically that of flight, fight or freeze. It is actually a protective response as it focuses the bodies energy for immediate action. It releases a number of stress hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol. This release of hormones in preparation of potential action leads to all those physiological responses that we know so well; increased heart rate, increased muscle tension, quicker breathing, sharper alertness, and a reduction in parasympathetic processes like digestion.
Stress responses are normal, healthy and adaptive. In the past, this would have given you the best chance of escaping a lion or springing successfully upon a gopher! Today it helps us to focus better for important deadlines, speeches and the like.
Unhealthy Stress Is Disproportionate To The Real Risk
Some people struggle with a particularly intense stress response, sometimes due to their unique physiology but more commonly because they are unable to perceive danger appropriately. Generally speaking there is an anxiety component here. So a normal stress response to approaching a good looking person of the opposite gender in a supermarket would enable us to be sharper and wittier and pick up on interesting things to comment on. However, someone with a distorted belief such as ‘they are definitely going to laugh at me’ is overestimating the ‘danger’.
Because of this, they might actually have such a strong stress response that they are unable to think clearly and mumble something daft! In other articles, we will examine how to regulate our stress response.
Severe acute stress includes traumas such as robbery and rape. If not processed correctly afterwards they can lead to disorders such as acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, substance dependence / abuse or depression.
Chronic Stress Is The Killer
As unpleasant as acute stress (stress from one or more discreet situations) chronic stress is the killer. This is because with chronic stress the sympathetic system never manages to relax and recover. It may be due to the inability to recover from one particular stressor, or more commonly because the person conceives ongoing ‘dangerous’ situations. These leaves people chronically stressed, which means that to one degree or another they are almost always in flight or fight mode.
Often in these situations, the body literally burns itself out. Also, because the immune system is suppressed during a stress response ongoing stress often leads to illness. Chronic stress can bring on or worsen illnesses such as adrenal fatigue, cancer, cardiovascular problems, asthma, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue syndrome, headaches, and accelerated ageing. This tends to translate not only into earlier mortality but also more years of disability before death.
What Can We Do About Stress?
So now that you are suitably frightened, let’s take a quick look at the kinds of things we are going to discuss in these articles on how to relieve stress.
Reduce The Stress In Other Areas Of Your Life
Stress is cumulative, so we will examine ways to reduce the small, ongoing stressors that we all struggle with. We will examine this within a cognitive behavioural framework, meaning that we will take a look at how to alter cognitions (thoughts and beliefs), behaviours, emotions and physiological / neurochemical responses. We will also look at ways to balance our lives better and adopt a stress resistant lifestyle!
Be Proactive In Reducing Or Eliminating Major Stressors
We will apply a similar methodology to the main perceived ‘dangers’ that keep our stress response activated. Where possible it is always better to find proactive solutions to stress based problems. Often this involves improvements in areas such as organisation, structure, boundaries and assertiveness. I always like to cite the serenity prayer whenever I am presented with an opportunity, and it does apply neatly here. You will learn to proactively alter the stressors that you can, and not concern yourself with those that you have no control over!
Reactive Stress Responses – How To Firefight Effectively!
Sometimes stressful situations are sprung upon us! You cannot do too much about the disorganised and unfair boss who dumps a pile of papers on your desk and tells you he needs your comprehensive report on the matter delivered by lunchtime. Well, you can – but most of those responses would get you fired or sharing a jail cell with a sailor called Tiny!
Here you are forced into a reactive response, and for most of us these kinds of situations can be stressful. We will examine stress reduction techniques to aid you in not winding up more than is reasonable, and in unwinding afterwards so that your stress response does not stay activated.