You may be feeling more stress than normal recently; if so you are not alone. According to ONS, half of British adults reported feeling stressed as we entered lockdown. This is more than double 2019.People were worried about losing their jobs, the impact on their health and wellbeing, as well as money worries. Other factors such as the change in routine, children not being at school, being unable to make plans, and relationship issues were sited. So most of us are feeling some stress right now.
Let’s start thinking about stress by thinking about how we respond to stress.
When we hear the word ‘stress’ we each have our own image of what stress means to us. Think about a time when you felt stressed. Let’s imagine that time. You will no doubt remember the cause of the stress – the coronavirus, your boss, a family member, losing your keys, or perhaps it was something more serious – but did you notice what was going on in your body at the time?
How did you feel? Were you panicking, worried, maybe you felt sensitive, or angry, perhaps you were fearful, or anxious.
How did you behave? Did you reach for the bottle and Increase your alcohol intake? there has been a 32% increase in alcohol sales since lockdown – so this may suggest people are having this stress response. Did you put on weight? maybe you were binge eating, or maybe you lost weight. Did you have mood swings, withdrawal, did you take time off work, did you have conflict with others?
Did you notice any changes in your body? Heart beating faster, blushing, trembling, did you feel fatigued/tired, were you sweating, did your breathing get faster?
What did you notice about your thoughts? Did you focus on the source of stress? were your thoughts negative about yourself or the situation?
Picture yourself there for a moment…are we all there?
The reason you felt that way is the stress response.
Stress is a physiological and biological response to a threat. The degree of response depends on the perceived level of threat.
It is our body’s way to deal with danger and keep us safe.
It protects us from threat, these days it is less likely to be a lion coming at us – although if you were to wander in the wrong area of the zoo this could well be the case, but our bodies still react in a similar way.
When our brain perceives a danger, our bodies are thrown into survival mode.
It produces a real physical response to get us out of danger. It instantly causes hormonal changes in the body and adrenalin is released – we either fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
Our bodies are preparing to either:
- be ready to fight the ‘enemy’
- to flee the enemy (to run away)
- to freeze – in a split second the brain decides to freeze, it is an involuntary response to a threat – by staying completely still.
- we may fawn – that is to ‘please’ or comply with the ‘enemy’ to minimise the threat in an attempt to protect ourself. Much like a dog rolling over with paws in the air – its saying ‘ I am not a threat to you’
We have two response to stress: short term or acute and long term or chronic stress.
In the short term or ‘acute’ stress response the hypothalmus sends nerve signals to the spinal cord then on to the adrenal medulla to ‘rally the troops’ hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are then secreted. The body sends blood and glucose where it needs to be to get out of that ‘threat’ situation, your digestion slows down, your blood sugar rises, as does your blood pressure, sending blood to vital organs away from, for example, your digestion which isn’t needed in the stress situation.
The overall purpose of stress response is to protect the most important part of the body – can anyone guess what that is? Yes, it’s the brain. Our brain controls everything – so it is wise to use your head!
The body cannot sustain the short term stress response so in longer periods of stress the long term stress response kicks in.
The hypothalmus releases adreno-cortico-tropic (or ACTH) from the pituitary gland which sends it to the adrenal cortex and cortisol is released.
This can lead to negative effects on your body, for example:
- It can upset your (circus) circadian rhythms – so your sleep will be affected
- There wil be a lower production of sexual hormones and the immune system will be surpressed – which is why we are more likely to get ill
- It will also increase your chances of cardiovascular disease and kidney failure.
So. when our bodies are in this state it is no wonder we can’t perform at our best over extended periods of stress. Our bodies create the stress response to any perceived threat or stress – be it at work, at home, or whatever it may be.
To recap, stress itself is not an illness, but if it becomes excessive or prolonged mental and physical illness can result.
Stress or Pressure?
Long term or chronic stress can have a serious impact on our health. But this is not to say that stress is always bad, we need some stress in order to prompt us to perform.
Stress in a biological sense is not good or bad. Stress in itself simply illicits a change in our body, and potentially long term adaptation. What is stressful to one person may not be another. But most of us view stress as negative so the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) differentiates between stress and pressure.
I know I am a person who works better under pressure. If I perceive myself to have all the time in the world, I have less motivation to get something done, and I might be tempted to think ‘I could do that tomorrow’. I work hard to not be like this! But I know this is my default and so I have to manage it.
Pressure at work is normal and good for motivation.
Too little pressure can stressful in itself, it can lead to boredom and frustration. Ideal levels of pressure vary depending on skills and capabilities but we perform at our best in the ‘optimal zone’ – where we are being stretched out of our comfort zone, but not so much that we will tip over to strain – which will eventually lead to burnout, and that is where people are exhausted and get signed off sick
Too much pressure and we may feel we can’t cope and that could actually cause stress. We can’t stay stretched permanently, so we need to take periods of micro, meso, and macro rest in between. That is something we can all add to our life – perhaps daily unplug time, maybe weekly ‘me’ time where we assign time to do something just for us, perhaps a favourite hobby. We should also make sure we take holidays or if we can’t travel, at least a break from responsibilities every few months.
It is useful to think about how you might keep yourself, or the people you work with, in the green zones – comfort to stretch and comfort again. Praise is a quick and easy way to recognise someone for their efforts without piling on more pressure, for example, saying ‘well done’, rather than ‘same again next week’.
To note – the ‘Zone of Delusion’ at the top there, is where we think we are busy and productive but we are not actually getting things done – remember working long hours doesn’t mean someone is ‘working’ i.e productive.
So stress and pressure should be seen differently. Too much pressure causes stress, as does too little.
Sources of Stress
We each will have different sources of stress, you can think about what yours are, a useful exercise is to draw a picture of yourself – a stickman/stickwoman/stickperson will do, and then draw our sources of stress around it. This helps us to visualise and think creatively.
Think about life outside of work, and also work life. You can do two separate drawings if it’s easier.
Once you have sketched your ideas, rate your stressors. How well are you coping with each of them?
You can use a traffic light system –
RED – having LOTS OF DIFFICULTY
ORANGE – COPING QUITE WELL BUT it’s STILL A PROBLEM
GREEN – COPING WELL with the stress
Just identifying your stressors will help, but it will also help you to think about what you can do about them.
So what can we do about our stressors?
We may need to take action. If coronavirus updates are making you feel stressed – turn off your phone, your devices, or at least your notifications.
Having some non-device time is always good practice. With technology, we can be constantly available these days so we all need to remember to unplug now and again.
Go through each of the sources of stress you have pictured and think about what can be done, of course there are some stressors you can’t do anything about.
And this is when you need resilience – that is how well you cope with stress.
Resilience is the process of adapting in the face of adversity. Some of us may use mantras or memes – one I use is ‘keep moving forward’ and it has helped me focus on getting through tough times, and is one I use and often site in my ramblings.
Other ways to think about resilience are the 4Cs
Suzanne Kobasa identified 3 c’s of resilience after studying businessmen in the 70’s and how well they dealt with stress, that is three qualities that resilient people share. Psychologist, Peter Clough, recently added a fourth to give us – commitment, control, challenge, and confidence.
Commitment – is to think about what your reason is for doing something. Is it for your family? Is it because you want to achieve something? Are you, like me, agreeing to do a Facebook Live webinar because you have dreams of being on the Ted Talk stage? So to help you deal stress think – ‘what am I committed to?’ We can find strength in our reason.
Control – do you feel you are in control of your life or are you constantly buffeted around the winds of fate. How do you get control of your stressor? Could you face a fear? If your fear is public speaking, could you volunteer to speak at a meeting or event? If not, are you allowing these things to control you? i.e you stop you doing something, the famous singer Adele had anxiety at the thought of singing in public, but she did it anyway.
Challenge – do you think life should be easy? Do you think ‘why me’? Or do you accept life is hard sometimes and there will be challenges – and therefore expect there will be challenges in life. Resilient people see change as a natural part of life, it is a challenge to be met head on and an opportunity for growth.
Confidence – that is the self-belief someone has in their abilities, and the confidence they have to influence others and deal with conflict or challenge. If you don’t feel confident a useful trick is to ‘Fake it till you make it’ …pretend for a while and eventually you will feel more confident. You could do something every day that scares yoU– we grow when we are out of our comfort zone, we keep growing and that zone gets wider. It doesn’t have to be extreme – you don’t have to bungee off a bridge, but have a think about what things you could do in your daily life to make you feel more confident?
Conquering the small things leads to nailing the big things, and conversely ignoring the small things makes them a bigger perceived source of stress.
In my opinion, there is no better feeling when you have achieved something you, or someone else, didn’t think you could. You may be surprised what you can get through. Remind yourself who you are and how far you’ve come, the challenges you’ve faced, and you will know you can deal with stress again.