Stress is defined in the dictionary as strain, pressure, strained exertion. It happens when we are confronted with unpleasant or threatening situations. We feel stress several times every day. Stress can be a positive for us as it helps to challenge and/or motivate us. Perhaps you have experienced putting something off again and again, the pressure building up and finally saying to oneself “I’m just going to get that over with and do it right now” or when giving a presentation, stress can help us stay focused. However, over time if the stress response is “on” most of the time, stress can be harmful to our health.
The stress response, “the fight or flight response”, is the body’s response to perceived threat or danger. It is the body’s way of protecting us. Hormones are released, breathing rate gets faster, digestion slows down, perception of pain diminishes, and blood rushes to the muscles so that the body has the energy needed to react or retreat.
This response is invaluable to animals in the wild. It is, also, invaluable when there is a real danger, like firemen going into a burning building or a parent running into the street to rescue a child. However, when we become stressed, the same process is triggered in us. Thus, if we have surprises, shocks or changes in our life, we respond with our whole body. When these continue to happen, even at a lesser strength than survival danger, our bodies continue to react just as strongly.
What are some signals that help us know we are feeling stress? They could be fatigue, trouble sleeping, change in appetite, trouble coping with everyday issues, trouble concentrating, stomach aches, feeling down, feeling anxious, worrying frequently, neglecting our appearance, arguing easily, withdrawing from friends and family, feeling rejected, feeling trapped. These could be low or high intensity stresses.
What causes us stress? Again, it can be any number of normal life situations or happenings, like financial issues, misplacing something, illness, poor communication in the family, new baby, moving, marriage, separation/divorce, loss, lack of sleep, argument with someone, vacation, new job, new school, and taking exams. When we feel threatened, fearful or uncertain, we feel stressed.
What can we do about stress? Increase our stress tolerance by having a strong support system, increase our knowledge about new events/ situations that could be stressful, increase our self confidence, learn ways of calming oneself, be aware of our internal cues letting us know we are feeling stressed, do something active. Choose to use tools for stress reduction.
Stress reduction tools can be journaling about the situation, listening to music, taking a bubble bath, reading. It can be reaching out to a friend; building new relationships perhaps by volunteering or joining a club, dealing with the issue if possible, change your reaction to the stress using humour or self talk. In taking charge of the situation, you are working to manage your stress.
Tools that activate the “relaxation response” are relaxation, deep breathing and visualization. During these relaxation tools, breathing rate decreases, muscles relax and there is no longer the fear of danger. This relaxation response can happen normally, however, when we experience chronic stress, the fight or flight response continues. Thus, we see the importance of choosing tools one would use for help when facing a stressful situation. Think about and practice some tools of your choice so that if/when you need them, they will be ready and familiar.