We all know it, we all understand it and we’ve all experienced it at one point or another.
Let’s face it, stress is awful. Stress can easily turn us into the worst versions of ourselves and leave us feeling defeated, frantic and completely overwhelmed.
A common misconception about stress is that stress is attributed to a particular “thing”. In reality, stress does not come down to a single situation or emotion. Stress is not the scratch on your new car or the extra work that your boss is dumping on you this week – Those are causes of stress. Stress, is the simplest of terms, is your body’s response to those particular causes.
People’s bodies generally respond to stress in one of two ways. We’ve all heard of fight-or-flight, right? When you experience stress, your body’s adrenaline and cortisol levels (known as the stress hormones) increase and essentially skyrocket through your bloodstream. These hormones cause your breathing to speed up and your heart rate to increase. Alongside these reactions, your body will also be graciously provided with a sudden burst of energy to tackle that particular stressful situation. This is your body adopting a belief that it is under threat from something and needs to defend itself.
In stressful situations, the human mind isn’t very good at distinguishing neutral situations from genuinely dangerous ones. More often than not, the things that people stress over don’t actually pose any real threat. Sure, some situations might call for a low level of concern, but it’s rarely necessary to be on high alert.
There are two different types of stress which are categorised according to duration and severity. The first is Acute Stress, which only lasts a short period of time. Situations that may trigger acute stress include sitting an exam, giving a speech or starting a new job. Typically, the body will bounce back quite well after experiencing acute distress, providing it is managed effectively. Experiencing acute distress may actually be beneficial for some, as it provides both the body and brain with an opportunity to “practice” and improve its response to future challenges.
The second type of stress is Chronic Stress. Unfortunately, chronic stress lasts for a long period of time and, in some cases, does not go away at all. Chronic stress occurs in a variety of situations including social isolation, mental illness, financial difficulties, health problems, overworking and stressful home environments. Chronic stress is difficult to manage and may cause deterioration of not only one’s mental health, but also their physical health. For this reason, chronic stress often requires professional intervention, though it’s important to remember that recovery is certainly achievable.
Whether acute or chronic, tress comes about in two different flavours: Eustress and Distress. Eustress is the way in which your body responds to positive and joyful emotions and events. Distress, on the other hand, is your body’s respond to negative and upsetting situations. Examples of positive causes of stress may include a social event, job promotion or exciting family celebration. Negative causes of stress may include unrealistic workloads, financial limitations and conflicts within relationships.
Another important thing to keep in mind is just how differently people may respond to stress when compared to one another. Take introverts and extroverts, for example. Both may experience the same causes of stress, though are likely to respond in completely different ways. Extroverts are more likely to respond in an angry, impulsive manner, while extroverts tend to respond to stress in an inward manner and experience bouts of anxiety and depressive episodes.
Keeping all of this in mind, it goes without saying that effective stress management is a crucial skill that each individual should learn. Realistically though, dealing with stress in a positive and effective manner is far more difficult than we may first think. Stress is deceptive. Stress tends to creep up on us in a sneaky way that has us feeling familiar and “used to it” in no time at all. If we aren’t mindful of this and we don’t take notice of the ways in which stress might impact our body, we are allowing stress to cause a great deal of harm without even realising it.
So, what should we be looking for to determine whether stress is already affecting us or not? Luckily, there are plenty of red flags to look for in these instances, all of which can be linked to three categories of symptoms – Cognitive, Emotional and Physical.
Commonly observed cognitive symptoms of stress include memory problems, poor decision-making, negative thought patterns and anxiety. Emotional symptoms of stress may present themselves through mood swings, irritability and depression, while physical symptoms are often manifested through headaches, stomach discomfort, lack of energy and changes to sleep patterns. Be wary of these warning signs; we all know how quickly stress can escalate and run rampant!
Now that we have a better understanding of stress and how it may present itself in our daily lives and routines, let’s get to the most important thing – How to manage stress. Stress isn't a medical diagnosis, so unfortunately there's no specific treatment for it. The best way to overcome stress is to listen to what feels right for you. We’re all different and unique and respond to particular things in our own ways. What might work amazingly for one person might be a total flop for another, so try not to be too hard on yourself if you don’t get it right the first go. Keep at it - You’ll soon find your groove and learn what works best for both your body and mindset.
To get started on your journey to minimising stress and overcoming everyday anxieties, try your hand at these simple yet effective strategies. Sure, a weekend retreat or overseas holiday will probably leave you feeling a little more relaxed, but where’s the harm in starting small? An international getaway isn’t exactly a realistic coping strategy, though these easy (and attainable) hacks might be just what you need to help each day run a little smoother.
Breathing is an automatic function of the body that is controlled by the respiratory component of the brain. When we feel stressed, our breathing is negatively affected due to that “fight or flight” response I mentioned earlier, causing us to put extra stress on our bodies.
Fortunately, we have the ability to alter and improve our breathing. Sit down in a position that is comfortable for you and raise your ribcage to expand your chest. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your lower stomach. Take notice of how your upper chest and abdomen are moving while you breathe. Concentrate on your breath and try to gently breathe in and out through your nose. With each breath, allow any tension in your body to slip away. Once you’re breathing slowly and doing so through your abdomen, sit quietly and enjoy the sensation of physical relaxation for as long as you can.
All hype aside, mindfulness is the art of paying attention to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness allows you to gain mental clarity in order to improve your thoughts, feelings and opportunities within the present moment. Mindfulness also helps you to “re-tune” your body in a sense, sending a signal to your brain to identify your current needs.
Meditation is the most popular form of mindfulness, though there are also more simple ways to practice mindfulness through interactive apps such as Smiling Mind. If you’re new to the game, I highly encourage you to download this app to get started with a few quick and effortless guided meditations. Don’t be disheartened if your mind wanders a little bit; this is all part of the process! You might also like to search a 10 minute guided meditation or YouTube or create one of your very own.
Reduce and Reach Out
Sometimes, the sheer volume of what we’re trying to tackle can be enough to cause our cup to overflow and make a huge mess. Rather than accumulating (which is the natural human instinct), allow yourself the luxury of reorganising and reducing. Yes, even too much of those good things can sometimes be bad, so don’t be afraid to look at temporarily culling some of those extra-curriculars if you’re finding that you don’t have enough time to wind down at the end of each week.
Lastly, please speak up!
While it’s completely normal to want to tackle things on your own and you may want to shift your mountains on your lonesome, it’s also perfectly okay to connect with others and reach out for a hand when you need it. Allowing time for these connections will not only provide you with a fresh perspective and unbiased opinion, but will also grant you with the space to let off some steam and shake those worries from your mind.
Remember, nobody is perfect and while we may have different struggles and experiences to one another, one thing rings true right until the end - We’re all in this together.
Cassie is The Real Her Project’s resident Counsellor and each month will be providing you all a personalised blog dedicated to you overcoming some deeper mindset struggles. Cassie is passionate about helping the next generation reach their potential and has all the skills to assist you in overcoming some of the tougher situations in life that hold us back from chasing our dreams.