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Understanding stress

This week is stress awareness week, and we look at what stress is and how it affects you mentally and physically.

Stress is a reaction to an overwhelming thought which triggers physical changes in your body. Your brain logging your tense thought, prepares you for fight or flight, a survival reaction your body uses to protect it from danger. This reaction is useful when for example, you have to run away from an aggressive dog, or you need to carry out a task quickly to finish it. In the fight/flight reaction, your body releases the hormones – adrenaline and cortisol, to release glucose in your bloodstream for energy and activate your muscles, prioritising this over other bodily functions such as digestion. Having successfully run away or fought off danger, your body begins to return to its relaxed state and resume its natural processes. When your perceived stress does not involve direct danger, where a fight or flight response will not be utilised which results in an ending to the stress reaction, the adrenaline and cortisol continues to be released.

Sustained increased cortisol affects sleep causing you to have difficulty getting off to sleep and wake early, causing an interchangeable jittery feeling and tiredness. It makes you irritable and irrational as your emotional part of your brain is in a state of negative bias, colouring your daily experience leading to constant misinterpretation of events and people, relationships suffer. Over the long term and leaving it unaddressed, it can increase your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cause weight gain because cortisol can increase your appetite and signal the body to shift metabolism to store fat, as far as the body is concerned it’s all about survival.

In our time, we are less likely to experience physical dangers that warrant our fight/flight survival reaction and instead have an overwhelming feeling of having too much to do, too many plates to spin and a lack of time to unwind; you may reach for a glass of wine instead to cope initiating other problems over time. The constant feeling of having too many demands and lack of control, affecting you emotionally, can make you feel like a failure, someone who is not coping, a victim, or make you feel angry and resentful towards others causing relationship issues, culminating in new problems.

You are not alone if you are stressed, recent research reported one in five people said that they had more stressful day per month than not and 74% of adults said that they had experienced stress to the degree that they felt unable to cope and not in control (CIPHR 2021, MHF 2018 respectively). The pandemic affected people in different ways, for some money worries accelerated and was their source of stress, whereas other had fewer tasks to perform due to lockdown restriction so felt more in control as it gave them more time.

There are many ways to cope with stress, the starting point is reflecting to see what the causes may be and try to address them, behaviour changes over the long-term can have a major impact. Activities like breathing exercises, meditation, and enough general down time to experience some relaxation in the day, to counteract the tension accumulated in your body, will really help you feel better and to sleep better. Examine your thoughts and beliefs about yourself, if you are constantly telling yourself, you must do things at the expense of your health, stop, and think ‘do I’, you may be habitually catastrophising due to negative bias as result chemical changes in your brain due to prolonged stress. Read up on it, make some changes, only you can help yourself.