So what is stress? We commonly use this term in everyday life and as a Manchester based life coach and psychotherapist, I help people who are suffering with stress and its fallout at our Manchester city centre clinic daily.
But what does it actually mean?
The stress response starts in the brain when we perceive that our environment might be threatening to us in some way. It’s a physiological response and not one that’s controlled by our thinking.
Stress has not always been our enemy.
Back when we were cave people our stress response served to protect us from harmful threats such as a sabre-tooth tiger! We’d experience a physiological response to the perceived threat (massive tiger!) and our brain would trigger the release of various hormones such as adrenaline to ensure we were geared to survive. We now more commonly refer to this survival response as fight, flight or freeze.
Humans have yet to evolve away from this response and we’re still affected by it today. We now perceive threats differently; while we no longer need to fear wild animals, we have a greater threat…. KPI’s, email, fear of failure and the judgement of others! In addition, we now lead almost completely sedentary lifestyles and our diet has significantly changed towards more processed and refined foods.
These factors combined can have a detrimental impact on our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
In the modern day we have redefined stress. It’s now a response to the perception of our environment and perceived lack of internal resources to manage effectively. Our brain tricks us into thinking that an approaching deadline is a life threatening situation.
So how does stress present itself now that we’re mainly working in an office environment? Below is a list of just some of the symptoms you may experience.
You may feel/think the following;
- worried about what may happen
- low mood
- a lack of humour or ability to feel happy
- unable to focus in the present and enjoy personal time
- you may have unhelpful thoughts that you can’t get away from
You may behave by;
- over thinking
- overdoing and over working
- finding it hard to make decisions or concentrate
- avoidance of situations
- over or under-reacting
- using drugs or alcohol
Recognition is key
I’m often surprised by the number of professionals who come to see me, who are experiencing high levels of stress, and did not recognise the affect it was having on them until something major happened in their life. Stress has a habit of sneaking up on people and it can be hard to recognise just how much of an impact it’s having.
Quite often it will be a family member, partner or work colleague that will notice it first, or a sudden health issue may arise. This can be due, in part, to the fact not all stress is bad. Having some stress can help to drive you to achieve, it’s a fine balance!
When it comes to managing stress two factors need to be considered
- Stress can be caused by external factors, such as having too much work to do in too little time
- Your internal reaction to stressful situations, which is your ability to emotionally regulate during times of perceived threat (that deadline!)
When trying to manage stressful situations I always ask myself firstly if there is anything I can do to control the external situation. So for example can I manage my diary more effectively to free up more time to meet other deadlines. Secondly if there is nothing I can do to change my environment how can I manage my internal process? For example, will engaging in some mindfulness help? Do I need to reframe how I view the problem? How can I best gain some perspective on the situation?
People respond uniquely to stressful situations. What one person perceives as stressful may not be to another. In addition, everyone will have their own unique responses to stress, for example the fight, flight or freeze response.
The fight response in the modern day could be seen as someone being argumentative, defensive and short tempered; the freeze response in the modern day could be procrastination, or not asking for help and support; the flight response in could be someone quitting a job, ending a relationship or abdicating responsibility to others. Do you recognize any of these in yourself?
Once you recognise you’re in your stress response, it’s important to physically calm your body down and shift from the survival part of your brain (the part that does not think, but does deal with emotions) to the parts that can help problem solve. When you’re in the flight or fight response the part of your brain that controls and manages emotions needs to be dealt with first as it is not the part of the brain that controls your thinking.
I’d advise engaging in some form of mindfulness exercise. This can be done discretely e.g. taking 5 breaths and really focusing on your breath, or, for instance, count five things that are green in the room. Acknowledge how you’re feeling, make a judgement on that feeling, and think about where it is that you are physically feeling it.
Lastly ask yourself is there anything you can do to resolve the immediate problem in front of you, and if so sketch out what steps you need to take. If you can honestly say there is nothing you can do to directly change the environment around you i.e. solve the problem, you need to make a decision about how you will internally respond (this is often the aspect that a person struggles with the most as admitting defeat feels like personal failure that you’ll be judged on by others). In minimising the impact of workplace stress and optimising mental wellness, dealing with perceived failure is a key step and one that needs to be addressed much more openly. Workplace culture is key in this.
These general strategies require practice to embed so they become second nature. If you find the impact of stress has become increasingly overwhelming it would be beneficial to seek support from an experienced and qualified professional who can help you to understand your own specific stress responses and what psychologically underlies them.
To your optimised mental wellness and happiness,
Dan Little - Optimised Life Coach & Psychotherapist