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Stress and How to Manage it

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

The following is for general information only.

It will provide you with an understanding of stress, how to recognise the symptoms and some simple techniques for you to try.

Contact your medical professional or a professional therapist if you require additional assistance.

What Exactly is Stress?

Stress can materialise in many guises and is blamed for many things, from weight gain and poor sleep to acne and digestive issues; from anxiety and fatigue to high blood pressure and poor immunity. It is a huge problem and is the root cause of many common ailments we experience today.

We know that too much stress is not good for us — but what exactly is stress?

Fight or flight

The word ‘stress’ is defined as hardship, adversity, force, or pressure. When our body is faced with it, whether from internal or external sources, a vital response process kicks in.

This is referred to as the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response.

Millennia ago, the likely threat a human being would encounter to set off this response would be a wild animal approaching, threat from another tribe or weeks without food. It makes sense, then, that you’d need the strength to fight back or to run away fast.

When our body is in fight or flight mode, adrenaline and cortisol is released. The heart rate goes up and blood gets pumped to our limbs and away from our digestive and reproductive system. Pupils dilate to help us see and the mind becomes hyper-vigilant (increased alertness and sensitivity to surroundings). The blood sugar levels go up too.

In a healthy stress response, the cortisol level rises and falls quickly — as soon as the perceived threat is out of the way.

Cortisol: the stress hormone

Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone and is intended to protect us from danger, damage, and inflammation. It responds to light and dark and, when functioning normally, it follows nature’s rhythm. It is part of regulating our circadian rhythm — the levels should be higher in the morning and then taper off throughout the day, so that by bedtime, when it’s dark outside, our cortisol level is low and we feel calm, relaxed, and ready for sleep.

Cortisol levels rise whenever our body notices a stressor - which could be an email from our boss, sleep deprivation, or our own to-do lists, and for many the current (2020) world health and economic crisis.

So what happens when the perceived threat is always there? When our phones are notifying us every minute, emails are streaming in nonstop, the work/life balance is non existent, the 24hour news and social media environment we live ?

The cortisol level rises and then stays high! This chronic stress is a big issue in our modern society and can lead to weight gain, insomnia, anxiety, thyroid issues, fatigue, and even autoimmune conditions.

The Antidote

Let me be clear: some stress is good and we need a healthy stress response! A little stress might make you perform better under pressure, increase your focus, and help you meet an important deadline.

It’s the chronic stress we need to combat and prevent. It takes conscious effort in today’s busy go-go-go society to carve out the time to prioritise rest, sleep, and to generally slow down.

Limit your phone/online time - do you have to check your phone every 30 secs, particularly social media?

Maintaining a diet that keeps blood sugar in check should also be considered for preventing stress from internal inflammation.

Sleep is crucial and fresh air and daylight helps regulate cortisol, too.

Signs and Symptoms of Stress

Stress can cause many different symptoms. It might affect how someone feels physically, mentally and also how they behave. Often not even recognising that stress is the root cause of how they feel.

Physical Symptoms

  • headaches or dizziness

  • muscle tension or pain

  • stomach problems

  • chest pain or a faster heartbeat

  • sexual problems

Mental Symptoms

  • difficulty concentrating

  • struggling to make decisions

  • feeling overwhelmed

  • constantly worrying

  • being forgetful

  • low sense of personal accomplishment

  • emotional exhaustion

  • Depersonalisation

Behavioural Symptoms

  • being irritable and snappy

  • sleeping too much or too little

  • eating too much or too little

  • avoiding certain places

  • drinking, smoking, gambling more

Not everyone who is stressed experiences every symptom.

The signs and symptoms of stress will vary greatly from person to person. As the experience of stress is very individual – it can show up in unpredictable ways, from sudden bursts of aggression to unexplained illness.

Symptoms may be directly related to a specific stressful event, such as an argument with a colleague, or may be the result of an accumulation of pressures over time.

Quick Tip: No two people are affected the same way by stress and there is no "one-size-fits-all" for treatment.

Risk Factors for Stress Situations as a Risk Factor

There are certain situations which can act as risk factors for stress. For example, a sudden increase in workload can lead to stress. It does not have to be a major event, per se. Situations which contain risk factors can be general daily frustrations. For example, a colleague who constantly makes hurtful remarks. Frustration in a situation such as this, adds up until it all becomes too much one day.

Situations that you are not in control, such as bombardment of negative or confronting media, whether they are directly affecting you or not.

Excessive stress is not formed over just a few days - it builds and grows over lengthy periods.

Personality as a Risk Factor

Personality can have a large influence on stress. As mentioned earlier, excessive stress is often triggered by a combination of a stressful situations and an individual reaction to it.

Reactions are mainly dictated by personality. Your personality encompasses your experiences, thoughts and feelings as well as your norms and moral values.

All these factors have a large influence on how you will personally deal with any given situation.

Not everyone will respond in the same way to the same situation.

For example, a person who finds it difficult to arrange their thoughts has a greater propensity to worry, which is one of the risk factors for stress.

Furthermore, a person who is passionate about their work, or those who put a lot of effort into helping people, will more likely “burnout” before others.

Perfectionists carry many risk factors for stress. They find it difficult to say “No” and therefore become overwhelmed.

However, if a personality can cause stress, it can also help to prevent it.

For example, an optimist will largely experience less stress than a pessimist.

A sense of humour, too, is an important factor in dealing with stress.

Environment as a Risk Factor

Environment plays a large role and there are elements which can counterbalance stress.

If an individual can discuss with a partner the strains of a long day at work, the cathartic release this brings is invaluable to managing stress; a good social life, with friends providing a listening-post, will also help, as will anything that makes that person happy, and can help counterbalance pressure and the stress it causes.

As I write this today (2020) we are physically distancing ourselves but this does not mean that we should lose our social connections. There are many ways that we can still “be together” with our family, friends and colleagues. We may not be able to meet in the park or for a coffee but we can still improvise and engage from our own homes.

The Medical Model For Treatment

Stress isn't a medical diagnosis - it is a reaction to events - and there is therefore no specific medical treatment to address it.

However, there are various medications available which can help to reduce and manage some of the signs of stress.

For example, a doctor might offer to prescribe:

  • sleeping pills or minor tranquillisers if someone is having trouble sleeping

  • antidepressants if a client is experiencing depression or anxiety

  • medication to treat any physical symptoms of stress, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or high blood pressure.

What Happens When You Have Greater Control Over Stress?

The research is there - if you have greater control over the stress in your life, you will feel better and live longer!

  • Your immune system will be stronger

  • Your stamina will be increased

  • You will make better decisions

  • The overall quality of your life will be significantly enhanced

  • Not just for those who feel like they are stressed but anyone who wants to be more relaxed and resilient

  • You will experience less anger, less fear, less physical discomfort and a greater sense of background happiness and well-being

  • You will achieve deep states of relaxation

  • You will have more energy

  • You will be more effective in your every-day life

  • You will access your body’s natural ability for instant calm and deep relaxation

  • You will change your response to stress and worry and stay at your best for longer

What can you do yourself?

In this modern world, we think we have to work non stop, to always be doing, to the extent that we feel guilty if we are not.

But if you study sports professionals at the top of their game, who are training hard, they build in recovery-time - they know the importance of giving their body time to rest and re-energise.

1. Exercise for thirty minutes per day - ideally outside

Exercise has such a profound effect on our happiness and well-being that it’s actually been proven to be an effective strategy for overcoming stress and anxiety.

2. Recognise and Dump the Negative Chatterbox in Your Head

You know all those negative thoughts you might be experiencing. Each and every time you find yourself thinking negatively, imagine dumping the negative (bury it, burn it, throw it out of a window...find a way, your own personal way, of doing this). Then immediately replace that negative with a positive image - this might be an image of you happy, calm and relaxed.

3. Do eat properly - three meals a day- choose nutritional foods, cut down on sugar, caffeine and alcohol (no I'm not the fun police, it's because anxiety is physiological, stimulants may have a significant impact). Motivating yourself to prepare a nutritious meal or snack can sometimes be daunting, think of this as an opportunity to learn a new skill, try new flavours, make it a fun activity in the kitchen with family or house mates; you know, it takes a lot less time to microwave a few fresh vegetables than wait for the pizza to be delivered. Imagine the benefits to your health and weight management!

4. Write Down The Good Stuff - The Power Of Appreciation

It can help to write down the good things that happen to you. It can be things you’ve enjoyed doing, nice things people have said to you, and the really good things in your life right now. These don’t have to be major things – even the tiniest positive thing is a poke in the eye for stress, and proof that good things are there and do still happen, even when we may feel overloaded.

As human beings we are really good at what we focus on and what we practice. How good would life be if we focused much more on all the positives in our life!

5. Stress Distraction Technique

Distraction can be a good way to fend off any sudden symptoms of stress. This can also allow you to “take a step back from the world” and take a more considered approach to the situation, rather than a “reactive” one.

Distraction can be simply likened to taking your focus onto something else for a few moments, but it can also prevent any stress robbing you of your energy - If you do this for around three minutes you will find that any sudden symptoms will dissipate.

Choose any one of these distraction techniques:

  1. Visualise being in your favourite place/favourite holiday destination, closing your eyes and imagining every aspect of that place - what it looks like, sounds like and feels like to be there

  2. Count backwards with your eyes closed from 200 in multiples of 2, if you forget where you were, simply pick up where you think you left off allowing your mind to wander to wherever it chooses

  3. Engage in an “Active activity” i.e taking yourself for a walk, ordering a creative activity like drawing or painting

6. Practice noticing tension in your body and relaxing your muscles daily Simply close your eyes, and focus for a moment on your breathing, every inward breath and every outward breath, and as you continue to breathe think the words: “calm and relaxed” with every breath that you take; then take your attention to your body, and scan your body for any areas of tension, noticing for a moment those areas - then let them relax.

Allow yourself to indulge for 20 minutes or so to release negative thoughts, tension in your body and emerge calm and relaxed.

Download this complementary audio Calm and Relaxation

Contact me, Diane Kirkham at for a personalised consultation, online consultations available.

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