Understanding Stress

Updated: Oct 13, 2019

Hi, my name is Melissa from Ipswich counselling, and today I would like to talk to you about stress. In particular, the process that stress plays on our mental and physical health.

We all experience stress to some degree, for some, it occurs on a daily bases to the point it can be perceived as an average state of being.

Given that we engage in a stress response so frequently, then it would only make sense that we are well informed about what is occurring and the potential consequences.

Stree is a biological and psychological response that occurs when a threat is introduced that we feel we do not have the coping mechanism to deal with. This is an essential process to keep us safe, as the body adapts to provide us with the necessary resources to support safety in times of physical threats.

The problem lies with the fact that this process is usually only beneficial if we are in physical danger. It may also be helpful if you are on an unrealistic deadline as it might give you additional resources needed to achieve the task. However, for most other stressors, these processes don't provide the resource to remove the threat. Instead, it can actually add more issues to your already stressful situation.

So to understand why this is the case, we need to explore the processes that occur during stress.

Stress Response:

  1. A stimulus: for stress response, something has to happen. Our brains are always on the lookout for potential threats, so everything we see, hear, touch, feel and think goes through a process. In this process, our past experiences, perceptions, values and beliefs will help to determine if these stimuli is a threat. So, for example, a bill arrives in the mail, you open it and see the values owing. Additional information might be processed and contributed to the stimulus, such as the thought that the required amount is not available in your bank account. As the information gained from the letter, your thoughts and knowledge are processed by your values, beliefs, past experience and perception to determine if a threat is present. This occurs in the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) if a threat is identified, this system will trigger a flight or fight response. If it is not perceived as a threat, then no changes will occur, the body will stay at baseline, i.e. no changes to its normal state.

  2. Once the fight or flight response is triggered, a domino effect will occur, including the releasement of stress hormones from the adrenal glands, these glands live on top of the kidneys. Some of the hormones released include adrenaline and cortisol.

  3. Once these hormones are detected, physical changes begin including the increase of blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and glucose production. It also suppresses the immune system, diverts blood from non-essential organs and relaxes digestive muscles while increasing skeletal muscles. These physical changes can contribute to other physical changes, especially if they stay in this unbalanced state for an extended period.

The body is not designed to be in this unbalanced state for long periods. This response is only intended to occur for enough time to allow you additional strength and resources to get out of danger.

This response would have been particularly useful to our ancestors who would have found themselves in physical danger often, i.e. being chased by wild animals. However, on a day to day basis, this is not a likely threat we encourager today. The threats we are likely to experience include today treats more related to time, deadlines, pressure, expectation and potential fears of future events.

So instead of a wild animal, we are now being cached by unrealistic deadlines for those pecky todo lists.

The main issue with this response is not as such that it occurs because this is what our bodies are made to do but, only for short periods. The problem is when our bodies are in this response for long periods.

If we go back to the example above about the bill arrival and the money available. The problem with these forms of stimulus is somewhat out of our control. For some people, there is no way to remove this threat anytime soon, as certain things need to occur over time for the threat to be removed. Another issue is that the situation can worsen with debt collector calling and other bills arriving. With all these factors, a person can be within the stress response for long periods.

The problem with this is the body can't stay in this state and fatigue will kick in.

However, instead of returning to baseline because of the fatigue, you are more likely to drop below your baseline. This is where a person experiences a state of exhaustion and potential hopelessness.

This may give the body time to recover but not the mind. Due to the distress in this state, you are more likely to be trigged back into the stress response, creating a devasting cycle.

Looking at this example is begs the question, what long term effect will this process have your mind and body?

The effects of long-term stress have been linked to diseases, especially cardiovascular disorders and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, to name a few.

It is not hopeless; we have control over certain aspects. A significant element of the stress response is our perception of what is happening. If we can reframe the potential stressor, then we can reduce its impact or length or inherently element it all together.

Some examples of potential perceptions:

We could look back at past experience and explore how we have always been able to pay my bill even if they are a bit late.

We could contemplate the possibility of contacting the company to ask for an extension.

We could make a plan to reduce some spending, allowing us to make a deposit on the bill.

We could accept that it is outside our control right now and accept that I will be able to pay the bill once I have the financial resource.

Reframing perceptions can be challenging, especially if we are already burdened by other situations and environmental stress. So it is also essential to consider these aspects:

  • Ensuring that we are getting ample sleep,

  • Choosing healthy food options,

  • Drinking pleasant of water,

  • Engaging in relaxation strategies,

  • Engaging in activities that being thought of joy and passion

  • Having a strong support network,

  • Not sweating the small things,

  • Understanding what items are in our control and what stuff ain't,

  • Learning to be mindful of our mind and body and making appropriate changes to support us in time of high stress,

  • Being kind to ourselves,

  • Avoid catastrophising outcomes that may or may not happen,

  • Ensuring that you have a realistic expectation of your time, resources and self.

Another aspect is to understand how important you are and seeing your own value each and every day and not placing your value within the complication of tasks. You are a person and value and deserve to have realistic expectations placed upon you rather than unrealistic ones that set you up for failure. Also, we are all only human, so we need to understand that we too need downtime, we need things that bring out our passion and creativity. These things should not be seen as expendable and should be a priority in any time schedule.

We hope that you have found this information helpful and welcome any feedback or questions you might have.

Remember you matter.

Melissa McKay

Ipswich Counselling

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