- pressure or tension exerted on a material object.
“the distribution of stress is uniform across the bar”
the degree of stress measured in units of force per unit area.
- a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.“he’s obviously under a lot of stress“
- something that causes a state of strain or tension.plural noun: stresses“the stresses and strains of public life”
Stress happens. Sorry, but it’s a fact of life: stress happens. How we respond and manage to deal with it is an individual thing. Some people seem to thrive on it; whereas for others it is a horror that they want to avoid. Some people do not think that they are stressed or that their lives are stressful; whereas others feel overwhelmed by the slightest thing. Both are perfectly normal responses. I have met people who get quite put out when I suggest that they might be stressed; even when it looks to me (on the outside) like their body is barely holding it together. I think that some of that comes from the fact that “Stress” is considered to be bad, and if you are “stressed” you can’t be coping with your life.
Anything that challenges our system is a stress, and the body reacts to the stimulus in a similar way to see if it is a threat to the body’s survival, and then we respond. According to Hans Selye, who was a pioneer in the study “stress”, we all respond to any stimulus in a similar way that can trigger a response known as the General Adaptation Syndrome. The most famous bit of this concept is the Fight/flight response.
If we hear a loud noise our bodies first react with a moment of stillness and a hint of curling up (shoulders rounding towards the front and upwards, as the neck withdraw and possibly the knees coming towards the chest) that if it was allowed to completely happen would put us into the foetal position. Most of us don’t go to that extreme, but we might duck. During this the brain is processing through previous times it heard that sound: working out what it is, how did we respond last time and did that keep us alive. So if the noise was someone dropping a crate we might be calmer than if it was something that sounded like gunshots. We then move into the (in)famous fight/flight response.
The fight/flight response is triggered by the brain and a message is sent to the adrenal glands, which are situated just above the kidneys. The adrenal glands then release adrenalin which triggers a number of changes within the body, known as the Adrenalin cascade. The changes include:
- Our hearts start pumping a bit faster, as we need to get oxygen to the arms and legs to prime then to either run or fight.
- Blood is slightly restricted towards the gut and intestines, as we don’t want to be digesting food during a life or death situation.
- We might need to go to the loo. You can see creatures like sheep do this when threatened, they pee and poo in a response that I like to think of as “lightening the load” in case they want to run.
- Our breathing changes towards a more upper chest pattern, so that we can get more oxygen into the system.
We might notice not much more than our hearts are racing, and according to Dr Selye the touch of a loved one is also a Stressor as far as the body is concerned (just a pleasant one).
If we don’t need to do anything because the noise was nothing to be concerned about, then the system should tail off and we move back towards the Rest and Digest phase, where things return to a more normal situation.
Modern life is full of stressors: the constant background noises of traffic, phones ringing, notifications of emails or texts or Whatsapp messages. It has been shown that our bodies do not differentiate their responses to these stressors from ones that are life threatening. So it can be argued that we are constantly going through the adrenalin cascade described briefly above, and we can start to remain in a level of fight and flight for long periods.
The long term (chronic) adrenalin response is where a number of conditions can develop and some of those can be quite nasty. We can also become completely habituated to the changes so that we can typically only breath into the tops of the chest, which is why I so often suggest the pursed lips breathing to my clients as it helps to move away from this. Our immune system is also altered by the release of adrenalin and cortisol, which ultimately might make us more susceptible to illnesses (stress has a role in why we get ill when we go on holiday).
We are constantly adapting to the situations we find ourselves in, and the fight/flight response can also alter how we hold ourselves. We will generally become tenser as we prepare to take action. We may thrust our chins forward in an aggressive/assertive manner. We may clench our teeth to either “grit our teeth and get on with it”, to “grin and bear it”, to “bite our tongues” or to “swallow our words”. All of these can add more tension into our bodies and we have patterns that develop over time. This can lead to all sorts of aches and pains, which we may not identify with being caused by stress. Many of us suspect that it might be related, but then choose to ignore it.
Over the years I have started to unravel the signs of stress and tension that develop in my body. My mind might not think it’s stressed, but if I start to dream about working for a well known Retailer (a time when I was chronically stressed) or feeling my jaw tighten, then I have to admit to myself that I am.
My solutions to stress include:
- Acknowledging it. If I don’t understand I am stressed, I can’t make any changes.
- Seeing if I can identify what is stressing me out and change something about it. Sometimes I can’t change anything as it is a period of intense activity, but even saying to myself “I can’t change things now, but only a few more days” can help, as long as I make a change after that deadline.
- Asking for help. This is a tough one for me (and many others) but if there is someone who can help with the burden it can take the pressure off. I am getting better at saying I’m stressed and that I could do with support, but I’m still a work in progress. If there is an emotional or mental health issue it might be worth talking to a professional.
- Changing my focus. This is often getting outside, preferably into nature, but doing something completely different. For me this could be a walk around the local Wetlands, taking photographs, or visiting a museum. Something that stops me focusing on my stress.
- Getting a bodywork treatment, this can be either Myofascial Release or a Massage. Taking time out to look after myself physically is not a treat, but a way to deal with the tensions I’m holding in my body. It is also when someone else can sometimes spot areas that I’m ignoring.
- Giving myself Reiki. This helps to calm the mind, and that can help soothe things. Even if it gives me a few minutes with a different focus.
- Becoming aware of my breathing as a form of meditation really helps. This could be the pursed lips breathing or just sitting and observing my breath or how my body feels. It is about finding a soothing and calming focus that helps me become aware of what is happening in this instant.
- Getting the mat out and moving the body with Yoga. Feeling my feet and noticing what my body feels like today and how to move to relieve some of the tension is a really great way to cope with stressful times in my life.
I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I do not always manage to do all or even any of these things and stress can get the better of me, but over the years these are the things that I have found really help me to get back to an equilibrium. I’m sure that you, dear reader, will have other things such as running or going to the gym that help you and if you find yourself overwhelmed, change your priority to make sure you’re doing something that helps calm you.
If you need me to help, then follow the links to the different therapies or approaches, and/or make an appointment.
This is a massive subject and I will be returning to it in the future. Especially as I am currently reading a book about the Polyvagal Theory, which looks at another adaptation we have for dealing with stress.
Thanks for reading this, my lovely Interonauts (and hopefully you understand a bit more about why I call us that)