Very simply, stress is the build-up of emotional or mental pressure. But what this means varies for each person. For some it might be having more responsibility at work at the same time as having to care for a sick relative or child. For others, it’s putting on a dress size and not getting invited to the right parties.
If you spot that you are displaying the signs of stress early enough and give yourself a break, change a few things in your life, take up meditation and stop drinking so much wine, you may be okay. If you soldier on, the stress builds and builds until you can’t contain it anymore, then you may be on course for a big old-fashioned melt-down.
Types of stress
There are many ways to look at stress. Positive stress is the shot of adrenalin needed before you do a presentation, meet a deadline or take an exam. Your heart beats faster, you feel more alert (hypervigilant), breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and your muscles are primed for optimal responding. When the event passes, the body returns to normal -- you relax and move on to the next challenge.
Negative or chronic stress occurs when the feeling of tension doesn’t abate -- when stress is piled upon stress. You can no longer relax and enjoy life without endlessly worrying. Your body is on high alert. The physical tension caused by stress creates broken sleep, anxious thinking (3am, thoughts whirring again…), leading to tiredness, loss of ability to focus, irritability, dodgy guts and teeth grinding -- which in turn means more stress and tension.
Say hello to your stress
The first step to breaking the spiral of stress is to recognise that you are stressed. If you don’t, your body will probably give you big neon signs (listed above) or, failing that, attempt to knock you out with a flu or bad back -- anything to get you to stop.
Be nice to it
Secondly, don’t blame yourself for not being able to cope. You have been coping, rather too well. And now it’s time to give yourself a break. Stressed people are often trying to prove themselves, or be there for other people, without receiving much of the same support themselves. They might have a belief that if they aren’t perfect, cheerful or always there for others, they won’t be loved or employed.
It’s time to put yourself before others, because if you don’t, believe me, you will become a whole bag of annoying.
Listen to what your stress is trying to say
You’ve been turning down the volume of your stress for a while now, while turning up the volume of the voice that says: “Keep going! Don’t Let anyone down! Don’t be weak or selfish!” That voice is what psychologists call the Critical Voice and, while it thinks it is ‘encouraging’ you, it’s being a total tool -- like those screaming parents at their kids’ football matches.
Think about it: stress is fear, and shouting at something that is already frightened will only make it more afraid.
Instead, tune in to your stress. Where is it happening in your body? If your heart is beating and your muscles are tense, this is a sign your body is getting ready to cope in a dangerous situation. If you feel numb and tired, you may be preparing to shut down -- or play dead.
These are ancient survival instincts wired into our brains to respond at the first signs of danger. Back in the day, the danger was obvious (Aagh! Sabre-toothed tiger!) and our response simple (run away!). Now we’re more complex. The perceived ‘threat’ could be emotional -- someone undermining us or worrying about a test result -- and therefore not so easy to spot or deal with. No wonder we just push it aside and carry on.
What does it want?
Stress needs to be soothed. It needs to be told -- and believe -- that everything is okay. As we said above, stress is a survival strategy. It doesn’t want to hurt you. It is trying to protect you and will have been triggered by a situation, or lots of situations, that left you feeling vulnerable and unsure of your ability to cope. Sometimes, we need to get through the critical voice and the stress -- both heightened defence mechanisms -- and listening to that vulnerable part. What is it afraid of? Is that really going to happen?
What can we do?
Take time out and look at life from a different perspective. Are things as bad as they seem? If they are, perhaps they need to change. If not, there are ways you can soothe your stress levels when they arise: this will help you to see things more clearly and make the best decisions.
The best tool for self-soothing costs nothing: it is deep breathing. When stressed, we breathe shallowly, taking lots of short breaths in and out. It is the in- breath that triggers the sympathetic nervous system, gearing us up for fight or flight mode; out- breaths trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which tells us the danger has passed and we can calm down.
The aim is to go for a long out-breath. To do this, take very deep breaths in, filling your lungs to the point where your stomach sticks out. This can take anywhere between three to five counts. Then hold and breathe out slowly -- for about five or seven counts -- until all the air has been expelled. Some people like to think of a mantra word (i.e. ‘peace’ or ‘relax’) as they breathe out. Try it now. Notice how you sit up straight as you breathe in, and how your shoulders drop as you breathe out.
This may feel strange at first, but practise deep breathing every day and it will become second nature as soon as you notice your stress symptoms returning.
Enter rest mode
Being tired leads to confused thinking: it can be hard to see anything positively. Read our blog about sleep here.
Schedule a regular rest period. Breathing, meditation and exercises like yoga and Tai Chi will teach you how to slow down: make sure you are somewhere you can be uninterrupted and comfortable.
If you are a workaholic, see resting as a way to recharge your battery and optimise your energy. If you are worried about being with yourself, listen to a self-help or meditation podcast until you learn to be comfortable alone. If you aren’t used to being kind to yourself, give yourself permission to look after you for a change. And trust that others can survive okay without you: respect their autonomy, as well as your own.
Let it go… let it go…
Like the song says, accept what you can do and let go of the things you can’t. Learn to delegate and you’ll be able to focus on the things that matter.
Finally … Don’t stress about stress
Stress and anxiety are very common. If you can talk about your stress with friends and colleagues, you will find out how many people have been there and got the t-shirt; how grateful they are to talk about it. And don’t expect everything to change overnight. Take your time, practice living and ‘being’ at a calmer pace and eventually you will begin to feel okay.