What causes us to feel stressed and how can we cope?
Our experience of stress arises from a physiological response within the brain and the rest of the body to feeling threatened, either physically, emotionally, or mentally. Within the brain there is a structure known scientifically as the limbic system and known commonly as the primitive emotional mind. This is responsible for producing the fight, flight or freeze response when we sense that we are in danger. The function of this part of our brain is to ensure our survival. It will respond immediately and automatically to a threat because it does not have the capacity to engage in logical, rational thinking or problem solving.
Our ancient ancestors evolved to survive
Imagine our ancient ancestors, the cavemen and cavewomen, who were hunter gatherers. They would have been faced with danger on a regular basis in their everyday lives. If a wild animal such as a tiger was approaching, a caveman would not have time to stop and weigh up the pros and cons of all the different options available. Should he stop and freeze on the spot pretending to be dead, should he use weapons to fight the tiger or should he just run? In an instant the limbic system would take over and the caveman would act immediately.
More than likely he would attempt to run away because his brain would produce a massive surge of adrenaline which would give him a kind of superpower, namely the ability to run faster than he has ever run before! Adrenaline, cortisol, and other powerful hormones would flood through his body and this is what provides these almost superhuman abilities.
However, it is not so good when these hormones are flooding through our body when we are not in immediate danger. Yet, when we are feeling stressed and anxious this is exactly what happens. Our body will produce the stress chemicals, cortisol, and adrenaline. Too much adrenaline can cause panic attacks and too much cortisol will only add fuel to any feelings of stress or anxiety. This can happen in situations of either acute stress or chronic stress.
Acute stress is experienced when there is a single event or trigger, and it is relatively short term. For example, a car accident with no long-term consequences. Chronic stress is experienced when there is either a single event with long term consequences or a series of events over a prolonged period. For example, a car accident resulting in life changing injuries leading to other events such as loss of employment and financial difficulties.
How stress accumulates in our daily lives
In the present era, stress accumulates throughout our daily lives and we need to be able to deal with it otherwise it can build up insidiously and before we know where we are, we can find ourselves experiencing problems with our physical and mental health.
To explain this, I shall use the analogy of a stress bucket. Let’s use Kate as an example. Throughout the day Kate has an invisible bucket by her side. In the morning she awakens feeling fine. It’s a beautiful day, she gets up, has her breakfast, gets ready for work, and begins to make her journey by car to the office. Unfortunately, she hits a queue of very slow-moving traffic which is unusual on her route. This makes her feel anxious because she has an appointment with a client at 9.00am and she is worried about being late.
Kate starts to feel a tightness in her chest and a knot in her stomach. These are symptoms of stress and anxiety. Eventually she arrives at the office 15 minutes late for the appointment and feeling flustered. One large item has gone into Kate’s stress bucket. She apologises to the client who is understanding and the rest of the morning proceeds uneventfully.
During the lunch hour Kate walks to the sandwich shop, buys her lunch and is strolling back to the office whilst looking at the messages on her mobile phone, when she suddenly realises that she has stepped in some dog muck on the pavement. Kate is upset about this because she is wearing a new pair of suede shoes and now, they are ruined! Another item has gone into her stress bucket. The afternoon goes well despite everything and Kate returns home from work.
In the evening as she is preparing dinner, she looks in the cupboard for her favourite steak seasoning and finds that the jar is empty. A small item has been added to Kate’s stress bucket. Over dinner, as Kate is chatting with her partner Tom, exchanging accounts of their day, he tells her that everyone in his firm received an email from Head Office informing them that a significant number of people would be made redundant in the next couple of months. Now a massive item has filled into Kate’s stress bucket. Kate is feeling upset, anxious, and worried. Later, she has a splitting headache and a bad night’s sleep.
Thankfully, life is not usually this stressful, but we all have bad days or go through difficult periods in our lives. We need to empty the stress bucket. If we do not empty it then our emotional resilience starts to suffer, and we can become very unwell.
How do we empty the stress bucket?
How do we empty the stress bucket when it starts to fill up? Sleep is nature’s way of ensuring that our body gets the rest and restoration that it needs so that we are physically and emotionally ready to deal with whatever challenges we are faced with in the day ahead. Deep sleep is essential, but it is during light sleep, the rapid eye movement stage (REM sleep), when we are dreaming, that our brain can turn emotional events into a narrative (a story) thus helping us to process those events and wake up feeling refreshed and restored.
However, if our sleep is poor, disturbed or a person is suffering from insomnia then this interferes with the brain’s ability to empty the stress bucket, regulate our emotions and function well in the world.
Interestingly, there is some research that indicates that deep relaxation during hypnosis replicates the beneficial effects of REM sleep. This helps to reduce stress, calm, and refresh the mind. Often clients find that hypnosis leaves them feeling not only deeply relaxed but able to think more clearly.
How can we restrict the amount of stress that goes into the stress bucket?
If possible, try to take positive steps to reduce the amount that goes into your stress bucket. Perhaps you could organise your time more effectively? Could you go to bed earlier to get more sleep? Are there any activities that you could do that would help you cope with stress in your life? Some people find exercise helpful; others may enjoy playing chess, reading a book, cooking, or doing a creative activity and so on.
Responding instead of reacting
When faced with a difficult or stress inducing situation, you could try to respond rather than react. Unless you really do need to get away from immediate danger and a risk to life, taking a mindful moment to pause, think and rationalise could reduce your experience of stress.
Ask for help
Asking for help and getting someone else’s perspective can also be useful. When we are feeling stressed and anxious it is exceedingly difficult to think clearly and maintain a focused state of mind. Someone else’s opinion and insights could be invaluable. My role as a Clinical Solution Focused Hypnotherapist is to help people to find solutions to their problems through a combination of both solution focused brief therapy and hypnosis.
Engage in positive reflection
Finally, using regular reflection on your daily experiences will help you to be able to control your emotional responses, so focus on the positive aspects of your day however small or seemingly insignificant. You may find listing two or three things at the end of each day in a diary, notebook or journal a helpful habit to get into.
Problems shrink or expand depending on how we choose to think about them. Pay less attention to the problems and more attention to what is good in your life and you will find that your brain will work away in the background, when you are feeling calm and relaxed, to help you find the solutions that are right for you.
(Kate and Tom are fictional characters and not based on real people.)
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