STRESS: THE IMPACT OF STRESS AND APPROACHES THAT MAY HELP

Long term or substantial stress left unchecked may have an impact on your physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. Short term stress is generally not damaging and is a part of being human. After a short stress period, the body sorts itself out by releasing different hormones that will return you to homeostasis (balance). The danger to our wellbeing is when stressor is substantial, lasts a long time or, when repeated small stressors activate the stress response without sufficient time in between the stressors to return to our non-stressed selves.

Prolonged exposure to the hormones that are released during stress can result in becoming sensitised to these hormones. When this occurs, we can become more reactive to even minor stressors. If this is not addressed, it can have a negative impact on our health and wellbeing.

So how much is too much stress for you? Many factors come into play here and I will discuss some of these below. However, you know yourself better than anyone else. So, if you are experiencing stress that is impacting you, what can you do about it? The answer depends on your personality, your life, your relationships and what is going to work for you.

**** If you have any concerns about your well-being please consult a medical professional, the below information is in no way intended to be medical advice.

WHAT IS STRESSFUL FOR YOU?

Work, home, finances, relationships, health?

Not all stress is equal and not everyone will respond to stress the same way or find the same things stressful. An upcoming deadline at work may be perceived as stressful for one person. However, another finds this to be a challenge and experiences feeling motivated. Jumping out of an airplane with a parachute is an exciting adrenaline rush for some, for others, it’s a big nope. A little bit of stress here and there is manageable. However, there are times when it feels like it is one thing on top of another, constant little things that build up. At other times, bigger events can have a significant impact on our stress levels. Below I am going to be discussing the impact of major or long-term stress. Remember, the goal is not to eliminate stress totally and permanently from our lives. Stress is a part of life. However, it is the sustained, unhealthy levels of stress that need to be balanced out for our well-being.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT (OR FREEZE) RESPONSE.

An explanation about the fight or flight (or freeze) response is necessary here, as it will assist you in understanding the next section on the potential impact that prolonged unhealthy stress has on you physically, mentally and emotionally. The following was taken from my previous blog on anxiety and panic attacks.

I will take you through the physical reactions that you may be experiencing and explain the reasons why they occur. Our fight or flight response is important for our survival. In an emergency, the fight or flight response can assist you in responding appropriately. When a threat or danger is perceived (real or imagined), before your conscious mind has had time to assess the situation your fight or flight response is triggered. Chemicals including adrenaline and cortisol are released. What happens once this chain of events is set in motion? Our body prepares to run from the threat, or to fight it. Muscles require oxygen to work, so our breathing changes to bring more oxygen into our bodies. Oxygen is carried through the blood to the muscles, so our heart rate increases to deliver the oxygen to those muscles. Energy is needed to fight or run so all our energy is directed towards where it is needed. As a result, digestion slows or shuts down. Our senses sharpen and our focus narrows in on the perceived threat.

This is all useful and appropriate if there is a danger or a threat. When you are experiencing stress, anxiety and panic on a regular basis, there is a negative impact on your body and your brain. Constantly being in fight or flight reduces your ability to move back into homeostasis (balance), leading to the feeling of constantly being ‘switched on’. Anything we do repeatedly will strengthen the pathways in our brains, for example, when you learned to ride a bike. Anything you repeatedly do will make your brain better at it. The neural pathways that trigger the fight or flight response become stronger, turning those small neural roads in your brain into superhighways. Your fight or flight response then engages faster, as you are changing the way your brain functions.

However, you can learn new ways to do things and build more helpful pathways in your brain. The key is repetition. Consistent and regular practice of stress and anxiety reducing techniques increases their effectiveness. If you are experiencing stress, anxiety and panic attacks the fight or flight response can result in breathing difficulties, dizziness, feeling lightheaded and/or your heart beating noticeably faster. Remember, your experience may be different to others, you may experience some or all of them. All the physical sensations described may be signals from your body that you need to seek medical advice. Always consult your medical professional and rule out other underlying issues before assuming stress or anxiety is the cause.

THE IMPACT OF PROLONGED, UNHEALTHY LEVELS OF STRESS

The following is not a definitive list of the impacts of stress. You are a unique individual and how you will or will not respond physically, mentally and emotionally to stress may be as unique as you are.

Digestion: During times of stress some may eat a lot while others find it difficult to eat at all. Even if you eat healthily, your digestive system will find it challenging to process the nutrients your body needs from the food you consume. You may also experience stomach and digestive upset. Prolonged stress can result in a number of gastrointestinal issues. If your digestion is impacted it can result in uncomfortable sensations ranging from butterflies in your tummy, nausea, diarrhoea or a heavy weight in your abdomen.

Immunity: When the fight or flight response is activated repeatedly or over a long period of time our immune system can be suppressed. If this happens, it will be more challenging for your body to respond to threats to your health. For example, you may notice you catch colds more frequently and they linger longer than they should.

Sleep disturbances: Stress can impact your ability to sleep. And, an inability to sleep is a stressor. Prolonged stress not only makes it more challenging to sleep, it also interferes with the quality of your sleep.

Burnout: Burnout can happen when you spend too long with one foot on the accelerator, one foot on the break, and then you run out of fuel. Sooner or later something has to give, and unfortunately if it isn’t a change of your circumstances or you are engaging with techniques or a way of being that assists in balancing things out, the result may be burnout. Burnout may feel like there is nothing left to give.

Memory: If you are experiencing prolonged stress, you may notice that it is impacting on your memory. There are a few reasons for this. When the fight or flight response is triggered our focus narrows. This is helpful for our survival because when you are under threat what we need to remember to get at the shop on our way home is irrelevant. Another factor is how much your conscious mind can hold at any one time. Each person’s brain is different in the way it works, but generally most of us can recall 5 to 9 things consciously at one time. This is your short-term memory. Your subconscious retains so much more and is relevant to your long-term memory, but that is a discussion for another time. Following is an example of why you may forget some things when you have too much going on at once.

Let’s say that you usually can hold 7 things in your conscious mind, like juggling 7 balls all at once. These conscious things may include things like “…pick up milk…call Sarah about Saturday night…book the car in for a service…” etc. So, you are juggling your 7 conscious thought balls and your co-worker tells you that before you leave for the day you need to do something. Oh, and remember to do this and that. You have just been thrown a couple of more thought balls to juggle. You catch those new thought balls, but to do this you have just dropped others. Next morning you boil the kettle for your morning cuppa, but there is no milk. How could I forget the milk! You drive to work, and the car is making weird noises. How could I have forgotten to book the car in! And, no, you never did call Sarah about Saturday night.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT STRESS?

Stress is an unavoidable part of being human. However, it is known that when we have an outlet, we cope with stress better. The following is not a definitive list of “how to stop stress in your life”. As I have discussed, your personality, perspective and what you personally find stressful will play a part. As a unique individual what will work for you when you are experiencing stress will not always be what works for another. It is more important that your approach is meaningful to you so it may not be the same approach that works for others you know.

Whatever you find that works for you, it is important that you do it often. Don’t wait until you are experiencing stress. Make stress management a part of your daily life.

Taking physical care of yourself

Prolonged, unhealthy stress can be exhausting, resulting in finding it harder to find the energy to be physically active. If you are striving to engage in a healthy lifestyle, stress can work against you. Unfortunately, this can add to your stress levels. Eating well and being physically active is beneficial for your wellbeing at any time, but especially when you are experiencing stress.

Can you delegate?

Can you reach out for help? Is there something or some things that you can request another person do or assist you with? This can be easier said than done for some of us. If you have a natural tendency towards perfectionism, releasing a task to someone else may feel too uncomfortable and increase stress initially. If this sounds like you, can you pick a few of the tasks that you feel less attached to the outcome of to delegate?

What can you stop doing?

Take an honest look at what is filling the hours in your day. What can you stop doing? Sometimes we get into the habit of performing certain tasks, and they become a regular part of what we do every day. Assess if there are things you are doing out of habit and not necessity, these may be the things you can stop doing.

The next suggestion is not given lightly, nor without awareness that it may be difficult if not impossible. If the source of stress is your workplace, can you change jobs? No job is worth your wellbeing and there has been an increase in discussions recently about unhealthy workplaces. Workplace bullies and/or toxic work environments can create large amounts of stress. If you are working in a place like this, after a period of time your mental and physical health may be impacted. I have worked with many clients who developed anxiety and panic attacks that could be directly attributed to past or current work circumstances.

Meditation, Mindfulness and other stuff

There are many techniques, approaches and activities that may assist you in working with your stress levels. What will assist you will depend on what you enjoy. I recommend trying some of the ideas on the below list and see what works for you. There are many ways of working with your stress levels and bringing greater balance into your life, far too many for me to list here. So, here are just a few ideas…

  • Yoga: There are many different styles of yoga and you may need to try a few classes with a few different teachers to find one that works for you. Call before you try a class to ask questions, and research the different styles available. My personal favourites are gentle Hatha and Restorative. These may be too slow for you and you may prefer a stronger practice.
  • Meditation: There are many ways of meditating and it is worth experimenting with a few different approaches to find something that works for you. Meditation can involve being seated, focusing on the breath, counting or all different kinds of things. However, meditation can also be a practice that involves movement, such as walking, Yoga or Tai Chi. If you would like to try a guided relaxation, I have recorded a FREE 20-minute relaxation MP3 that is available from the shop on my website.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness in a nutshell, is bringing your awareness to your present moment. Our minds do enjoy journeying into the past or wandering into potential futures. Mindfulness brings you into the moment as it is right now. It is about becoming aware of what is happening for you in this moment.
  • Spending time in nature: Spending time in nature can be calming and relaxing. Wherever in nature that you enjoy, go do more of that. Your local park, the beach, a forest or even your back yard, any kind of nature is good for you!
  • Hobbies: Is there something you enjoy doing that you can do more of? Something that you used to do and enjoy but you haven’t done it for a while? Spending time on hobbies and activities that you enjoy is important for self-care. During times of stress these are the very things that we may stop doing. It is important to make time for them!

FINAL WORD

The stress we experience in our lives can have an impact on our wellbeing. Some things you may be able to address yourself. However, sometimes we can benefit from additional support and assistance. Can you reach out to a supportive friend or family member and talk things through? Or, talking with a counsellor or other helping professional may assist you in finding your own way to work with your challenges.

If there are issues and circumstances that you need support and assistance to work through, please contact me for an obligation free, confidential discussion as to how I may be able to assist you. I am a counsellor (Member ACA), clinical hypnotherapist (Clinical member AHA), yoga and meditation teacher. I specialise in Stress, Anxiety, Panic Attacks and other related challenges. Phone, Skype, WhatsApp and Messenger sessions are available.

Allison Lord

Inner Mind Therapies

Ph 0403 357 656

WhatsApp +61 403 357 656

Email allison@innermindtherapies.com.au

www.innermindtherapies.com.au