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What is 'stress'?

In spite of the feelings we associate with stress such as feeling overwhelmed, irritable, having poor sleep, anger, stomach or bowel upsets, headaches, difficulty focusing or concentrating stress is actually a good thing in certain situations. It’s your mind's way of putting you on alert, to look out for danger and help you to deal with a crisis. It’s designed for dealing with short term, immediate & life threatening situations like being attacked, having to physically defend ourselves or just feeling ‘under threat’. In these situations, the systems your mind is using are essential to help keep you alive. The problems arise when these systems activate in non-crisis situations and remain active for long periods of time. That’s when chronic stress can start to impact negatively on our lives. Whatever puts pressure on us, generates stress and it’s not necessarily always bad for us. Some stress can help us to perform better, to get things done and to stay on top of things. The internal mechanisms that put us on alert use the same body/mind systems to prepare our bodies for 'fight or flight' whether we are ‘stressing’ from financial worries, feeling bullied at work, being physically attacked or being in a life threatening situation. The only difference is the level of activation. What happens to us in a stressful situation: 1. We perceive a danger – this could be real or something we have drawn a wrong conclusion about. 2. The fear centres of the brain, particularly involving the Amygdala and Hypothalamus, signal for a ‘fight or flight’ response. At this point the decision is made as to how big a response is required. If the danger is taken to be serious, then the response is also strong. If the danger is felt to be minor, then the response is lower. 3. The sympathetic nervous system then activates and communicates with the body to implement the state of heightened alertness. The adrenal glands pump epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream. This increases pulse and blood pressure, sends more oxygen to organs and muscles, senses become sharper, oxygen intake increases and blood sugars are released to prepare the body for immediate 'action'. 4. The body is now primed and ready to react to the perceived crisis. Thinking is fast and optimised for rapid analysis of many things, making it difficult to concentrate on one thing for a prolonged period of time. Muscles may be more tense, aggression increases, bladder and bowels may feel pressure to evacuate, to lighten the body in readiness for running or fighting, and everything is being filtered through the mind’s self-preservation systems; looking for danger, problems and risks in order to keep ourselves safe. All of these responses are good in a danger situation, so what goes wrong? In the modern world most of the things that stress us are not immediate or life-threatening crises. They are things we encounter day after day. A difficult work colleague, overwhelming workloads, lack of recognition, financial pressure, caring for an elderly or sick relative, relationship difficulties etc. can generate a continual low level of stress and for some people and situations, quite a lot of stress. Over a prolonged period even a low level of constant stress can become very damaging. Like holding a glass of water; what can be so easily accommodated for an hour, how much effort does it take to continue holding it up for an entire day, a week, a month? Coping reserves begin to be depleted and what started as a minor task can become an overwhelming ordeal. The build-up of ongoing stress, even from something minor, can start to take a toll until eventually symptoms can begin to appear. It usually comes on slowly but the continual ‘dial up’ of stress can begin to affect mood, productivity, calmness, focus, sense of well-being, relationships and family life in some cases. What is designed to keep us safe in the moment can, in the long run, suppress the immune system giving rise to more colds or infections and taking longer than usual to get over them. It can also cause irritability, racing thoughts and generally begins to impact on the sense of enjoyment of life. Understanding that our stress response is a valuable system that is just switched on too long, at the wrong times, can help us start to address it. The emotional push we feel when stressed is not interested in our happiness or how successful we are, it’s only designed to help keep us alive. Trying to reason with it is often less useful than looking at how to change the initial trigger – what is it that is making the mind react as if to danger, in the first place and to then remain in this state long after the 'danger' has passed. Stress runs on hormone release, primarily Cortisol. That’s the messenger that delivers the response in many aspects of what we feel. Reducing the level of stress hormone is a huge benefit in feeling, and doing, better. Exercise helps greatly. So does taking a genuine break from stress where possible. Weekends with work phones left on or e-mails being checked, maintain stress and rob our mind of the chance to de-stress and relax. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, massage and other therapies can be helpful too. The big one though? Notice the stress. Stop pretending it’s not there if it is. Then do something to help yourself reduce it. Once we understand it and work with the systems of mind and body that are involved in creating and maintaining it, we can do something about it. If you find you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, emotional, anxious, have sore muscles, are snapping at family and friends or reacting disproportionately to situations, notice what’s going on and start looking for practical and immediate ways to help reduce stress. It is well worth addressing the early warning signs rather than allowing them to build and it's a lot easier than you might think to start to make a positive difference. If any of this is of interest to you or if you would like to have a chat about anything mentioned in the article, please feel free to call me on 087-9704084 or e-mail me at;

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