- Feeling that sense of dread in your stomach.
- Being snappy and irritable with your family, friends and colleagues.
- Your heart racing.
- Feeling completely stuck and that there is no way forward.
These are all classic symptoms of stress.
Stress is a huge problem in the UK. Did you know the total number of cases of stress as a work-related illness in 2011/12 was 428 000 (40%) out of a total of 1,073,000 for all work-related illnesses in Great Britain?
So let’s find out a bit about the biology of stress. You may or may not have heard of the autonomic nervous system. This is the system in our body that looks after things like our heart rate, breathing, digestion etc - the elements of our bodies that are working all the time, without us being consciously aware.
The autonomic nervous system is split into two parts - the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the Fight or Flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the Rest and Recovery system. When we are under pressure the sympathetic nervous system is activated, leading to the fight or flight response. This means that when the fight or flight response kicks in our heart rate increases, our blood pressure increases, blood flows to our arms and legs and our breathing quickens, adrenaline is released, so that we can run or fight. At the same time the things like the digestive system and the immune system are suppressed because the body has more urgent things to deal with.
This system worked brilliantly when we evolved and were subjected to short-term dangers. However, in modern life, the fight or flight response is stimulated in response to things like a report being due in or exam stress and it can be stimulated chronically, often all day every day if you have a stressful job.
If we are stressed for a long time it can lead to high blood pressure, depression, stomach ulcers, (because the digestive system is suppressed), illnesses, (because the immune system has been suppressed) and many other health issues. Stressed people often also suffer with insomnia.
So, we can see that chronic stress is very bad for our physical and mental health.
Luckily, there are several steps you can take to lower your stress.
One good way is to use exercise. Exercise uses your muscles, allowing the fight or flight response to be used as it was designed. Exercise also helps to keep you healthy which can help to protect against high blood pressure. Exercise also makes you feel good (afterwards!) and releases endorphins.
Sometimes, when we are under a lot of pressure, we have a tendency to catastrophize. We imagine the worst case scenario. It can really seem that the world will end if we make a mistake in an email. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and think realistically what would happen.
Another quite useful technique is to imagine things through to the end. When we feel stressed or anxious about something we will often think about it. The problem is that we often stop the imagination at the worst part. For example, someone who gets very stressed about flying on a plane, will often remember a turbulent flight and will only imagine the turbulence. If you find yourself doing this, one of the best ways to help yourself, is to continue imagining right through to the end, when you were once again feeling safe. Using the example of a flight, you can continue to imagine the plane landing and getting off the plane and enjoying a holiday.
In our busy modern lives, we often don’t take time to just relax. Even when we are “relaxing” we’re often reading, watching TV or surfing the internet at the same time. For some of us the only time we relax is when we are asleep. Taking time every day to really relax is very important. There are lots of relaxation CDs you can listen to, or you could try practising techniques such as meditation and mindfulness. Having worked with a lot of people who suffer with stress and insomnia, I have found that incorporating simple relaxation techniques, very quickly improves people’s sleep patterns.
So all these techniques help us to cope with the stress we are under. However, how can we lower the actual stress that’s put upon us? Often stress comes from certain people in our lives, most commonly a boss, but our friends and family can also cause us to feel stressed.
A really good way to manage your workload or to manage a difficult relationship is an assertiveness technique called DESC:
D – Describe. Describe with no emotion and no evaluation, exactly what is bothering you. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t say always when you mean twice. This bloodless step must come first.
E – Express. Express how this makes you feel. Don’t accuse, don’t evaluate the other person, just identify which emotion you feel.
S – Specify. Specify exactly what you want the other person to do.
C – Consequence. End by saying just what you will do if your target does not comply. Be accurate, don’t threaten, don’t menace, don’t bluff.
So, I have told you a little about the biology of stress and about some simple ways to decrease your stress levels. Stress is very common and can be detrimental to your health and well-being, so it is certainly worth taking some action now.
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