Stress is common, with some estimates suggesting that one in three people at any one time in Scotland are suffering from stress. Stress can be adaptive – sometimes it helps us to get motivated to do a task, make a change or react to a situation better. However, too much stress or experiencing prolonged stress can have a negative impact on us. It can also lead us to developing more serious mental health disorders.
Where does stress come from?
When we experience changes in our environment, our mind and bodies react in certain ways to try and cope with these triggers. This happens because of a mechanism called ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze”. We evolved this system as cave people to help us react to potential dangers we encounter in our environment to give us the best chance of surviving the situation. When this alarm system goes off, it triggers changes in our bodies and mind to get us ready to fight an enemy, run away from a falling tree or freeze to avoid being seen by a predator. Our hearts beat faster and our breathing quickens to get more oxygen around our bodies. We start to sweat as we anticipate we may need to expend energy and overheat. We may empty our bladder or bowels – you never know, being a little bit lighter might mean the difference between life and death if we are running for our lives! Our minds react too – our vision changes to allow us to see further and our pupils dilate to let more information in to our brains. Our mind might also scan memories of times we’ve encountered similar threats to see if it can find a good solution we’ve used before.
This system is really helpful when we are facing physical threats. The problem is, now-a-days we don’t face physical threats as often. Now, our threats are more social or psychological – having to speak in front of a meeting at work, a partner leaving us or money worries. Unfortunately, this system can’t tell the difference, and our alarm system might go off in situations that we can’t really run, fight or freeze from. That means we can be left with a load of symptoms that aren’t exactly helpful if the ‘threat’ we are facing is a big bill, a party or a presentation at work – we might feel like our heart is beating out of our chest, sweaty and hot, out of breath or that we need to keep going to the bathroom. On top of these symptoms not being helpful, they can also make coping with these situations harder – if we feel like we are sweating through our shirt during a job interview, this can make us more stressed, which makes the symptoms worse and worse! They can also seem scary and out of the blue, which can make us more stressed as well.
The good news – how to manage stress differently.
Sometimes, just knowing where stress comes from can give us a break from worrying about it – it comes from a normal, adaptive system that we evolved to keep us alive. This means it is extremely unlikely to cause any long-term damage to us. There are lots of ways we can manage stress differently – here are some ideas:
- We can look at what is triggering our current stress – can we make any life changes to reduce these triggers?
- A healthy body helps us to cope with the impact of stress – are we getting enough sleep, is our diet healthy enough, are we drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, smoking too much? All these things can affect our ability to cope with stress – think about making some simple lifestyle changes to boost your ability to cope with stress.
- What skills do we have for coping with stress – can you add any? Breathing techniques, mindfulness and meditation have all been shown to improve our ability to cope with stress – how about signing up to a local stress management class or download some mindfulness or meditation tracks off YouTube.
- Get moving – exercise has been shown to reduce excess adrenaline in our bodies, a side-effect of stress. Increasing your exercise doesn’t mean putting on lycra and going to the gym (!) – it can be as simple as getting off the bus a stop earlier and walking from there. Think about small changes you can make that will make you more active.
Sometimes if we’ve been experiencing stress for a long period of time, we might need some outside help or support to overcome it’s impact. This is where therapy can help as it gives you the time and space to reflect on how to manage stress differently.
It can also support you to make the changes needed if doing it alone seems overwhelming just now. If you think you need some more formal help check out our therapy and advice pages for options that might suit you.