Not all stress is bad. We'll get that out the way first.
We need an element of stress in our lives to help us to meet deadlines, get through tests and exams, and help to focus us when we need to most. This type of stress is called Eustress. It gives us mild anxiety, sharpens the mind, and helps us get through the challenges life throws at us.
It becomes problematic when it becomes distress - when rather than sharpening our focus, attention, and thoughts, it clouds our judgement. We cannot see past the fog of stress.
Why we get stressed
Stress is a natural part of life. It's one of the key components that helped our species to survive so long.
All animals have the fight, flight, and freeze response. When i scare my rats (not on purpose) they either scarper into a safe space, or they freeze hoping that their not moving will result in me not seeing them. Humans have had to do the same throughout history. If we saw a lion on the savanna preparing to eat us then we would run as fast as we physically could. In times like that our bodies become ultra-efficient to help us to run faster than we usually could - almost becoming superhuman. This is where eustress comes in to action. Our focus sharpens so we recall our terrain and plan our escape in an efficient manner.
The less pleasant aspects of this stress-reaction are that our body shuts down less necessary processes. It shuts down the digestive process, it shuts down the immune system, and it clears out the bowels to make us lighter! (I am sure many people have experienced the need to get to the toilet very quickly when stressed and anxious).
This is marvellous for ensuring the survival of the species. The problem now, as I've probably said many times before, is that modern day stressors are less likely to be lions prowling around. They're more likely to be psychological threats. Losing a job; work stresses; money stresses; family stresses; and many other things that don't physically threaten our lives. When our lives are physically threatened the survival mechanism is useful. Otherwise, we really do not need our hearts to start racing to pump our glycogenated blood around to the legs to ensure the muscles have sufficient energy to power our bodies away from the threat. Maybe you've found your legs 'running' whilst you're sat at your desk at work!?
Stress & Health
)Distress in itself is not a pleasant feeling.
We are all going to experience distress at some point in life. When it is prolonged, when it becomes chronic stress, there are many consequences for our physical health. None of them are good.
As mentioned above, our immune function reduces. You may have experienced this in the past when you have had a cold following a stressful time. I recall that when writing my doctoral thesis I managed to regrow my tonsils just so my body could give me tonsillitis. Something I'd not experienced since having them removed as a child. We can get over colds, and tonsillitis. These are short-term effects. Chronic stress can, however, open the door to much more insidious illnesses such as cancer. This is why stress management is such an important aspect of cancer care as stress can reduce efficacy of cancer treatment.
Persistent stress, due to the strain on the heart, and the increased blood pressure, can result in thickened arteries (atherosclerosis). This is a leading cause of coronary heart disease and stroke.
Furthermore, due to the reduced digestive function, there's an increased risk of stomach ulcers.
The above are the most serious of the potential issues. There are many others such as headaches, lack of concentration, fatigue, muscle pain, dizziness, amongst others.
Ways to manage/deal with stress.
Firstly, you can make an appointment to see someone like me. As a psychologist I use a variety of tools to help people to deal with their stress in new ways. I pride myself in having a versatile toolkit that helps me to achieve great results and use ACT, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, and BWRT. I've helped many people in Guernsey, I have direct referrals from local employers wanting to help their employees through difficult situations, and I've worked with people across the globe via skype.
This option, unfortunately, is not available to all. There is state-funded support yet the waiting list can be 6-10 months long. I believe they are working hard to reduce this and your GP could refer you if necessary.
There are also many self-help tools available and can help you to develop a different relationship with stress - I'll list a few that I know have help people in the past:
Some may try to manage stress through eating chocolate, spooning a whole tub of Haagen Dazs into their mouths, or imbibing alcohol. These things can work wonderfully in the short term. Not always, but sometimes. The issue comes when it's our weight that's a significant contributor to our stress. Or the things we do when we've had a little too much to drink, combined with the fact alcohol is a depressant.
It's important to identify what and who in life is important to you. If it's important that you provide for your family, have a secure home, and live a healthy life then none of the above coping mechanisms will really help to facilitate any of those values. We all fall into those traps occasionally, some fall further than others.
More fruitful ways of dealing with stressors can be things such as painting, or another form of creative expression; exercise (not just the gym, but walking along the coast can have many psychological health benefits, as well as some physical health benefits); socialising with a friend or a loved-one (not necessarily in person. You can call someone, Skype someone, or meet someone; or, you can engage in a mindfulness based activity. These are just a few. As everyone's been stressed before everyone knows things that help reduce the impact of stress on their lives. We just don't always allow us to recognise that fact.
I'm a doctor of psychology, born in Guernsey, educated at a tertiary level in Bristol, Bath, and London. Having worked and trained with some of the leading Health Psychologists in the UK, and having a passion about how Health Psychology can truly benefit many people, I now want to spread the word, as well as offer consultations to people wanting to make changes in their lives.