Managing Stress

By Sara Ireland

Stress results when the demands of the environment are greater than the individual’s perceived coping resources. It refers to a collection of physiological, emotional, behavioural and cognitive reactions that occur in response to environmental demands. ‘Pressure’ to a varying degree has benefits but when it edges into prolonged stress; there is negative impact on the individual. Stressors are triggers of our stress response. They can be life changes, such as death of a family member, getting married, a negative health diagnosis, moving house, getting divorced, dealing with change at work, managing difficulties in relationships, pregnancy, having a family, getting divorced, sitting an exam or going for a job interview; starting a new job or losing a job; starting on a new piece of equipment; multi -tasking; dealing with daily life hassles, uncertainties and setbacks; learning new things. Everyone is different. Altering our lives, making transitions and adjusting to new patterns or circumstances can be stressful. The Covid pandemic has challenged many of us in our homes and work lives and the prospect of  making another change into a new phase of the pandemic requires much mental and emotional energy.

As we interact with the world around us, we must make constant appraisals of environmental threats, challenges and demands and our own capacity to cope with them. If the threat is assessed as dangerous and our evaluation of our available coping resources is insufficient to manage the risk, we move into a state of alert- an alarm or ‘flight-or-fight response’. This generated response enables us to mobilise our energy and our physiology to take action to keep our selves safe. When this happens, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and hormones, including adrenaline and noradrenaline, are released into the blood stream. Heart and respiration rates accelerate, blood pressure increases, supporting faster oxygenation to the brain and large muscles of the body. Blood is redirected away from the extremities to the core,(skin goes paler) and digestive processes are slowed. Muscles tend to become tense, eyes dilate, and hearing becomes more acute and our sweat glands are activated to maintain body cooling.

Psychological processes are also activated. Attention becomes heightened and narrowed with reduced ability to attend to other tasks. Short-term memory and decision-making abilities can also be negatively affected in high stress. People report feeling jittery, “on edge”, fearful, anxious, and restless. Pacing, fidgeting, and avoidance behaviours are common behavioural signs of a stress-induced alarm reaction, and many people experience an urge to avoid the stressor or to flee from the situation. When stress is prolonged, individuals report changed eating and drinking habits, poorer sleep, reduced memory and cognitive functioning, reduced attention, impaired concentration and poorer problem solving, decision making and more errors in practical tasks. 80% of psychological conditions are typically triggered by prolonged periods of stress. Chronic high stress is associated with serious physical health concerns, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, immunosuppression and more frequent illnesses, sexual dysfunction, gastrointestinal disorders, and recurrent headaches. Life style factors such as poor diet, caffeine and alcohol can make us less resistant to stress and impair sleep and other protective factors that support us in managing stress.

Pressure provides optimised performance conditions as part of a continuum where under- stimulation is at one extreme and stress is at the other. Pressure ensures demands are met by a perceived available coping resource. When we are thriving under pressure, we might notice we feel ‘on fire’, ‘on a roll’, we are energised and learning, excited, quick thinking or witty, responsive and focused, curiously and avidly immersed for relatively short intense periods. Under stimulation is associated with too few demands upon us, lower cognitive and physical performance, boredom, lack of attention to detail and low energy. procrastination and possibly low energy due to lack of mobilisation of physiological and psychological systems. Under-stimulation can be stressful too.

Research suggests that there are things we can do to manage stress. Physical exercise, even walking and dance have protective effects. Relaxation, mindfulness and meditation help too. Expression in written and verbal form gets us in touch with feelings and offers a stepped back perspective on the triggering events. Restructuring our thinking away from unhelpful thinking styles changes our response to problematic events mitigating effects of worry and poor self esteem. Often our assessment of our ability to cope is inaccurate and we can do more than we think! Eating complex carbohydrates (oatmeal, whole grain breads and cereals) cause your brain to release Serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with positive mood and foods rich in Vitamin C (oranges) and Omega-3 fatty acids (salmon) can help reduce levels of stress hormones and improve immune functioning. Fun and laughter provide distraction and physical muscle activity which mirror some aspect of diaphragmatic exercise, which is part of relaxation techniques. What’s more having fun or laughter is often combined with social interaction and social support is another key aspect of any plan to improve your wellbeing by reducing your stress. In difficult times, a funny text or video or a virtual or real social connection can make a big difference to how we feel.

In summary, stress is an extreme response to a perceived threat. It can be managed by individualised solutions that include exercise, eating, relaxation, thinking styles, expression through talking to others or writing our feelings and thoughts down. Laughing and fun are both a distraction and good for you. These techniques singularly or together can work as well as medication or better. However, if stress is prolonged without improvement, see your GP or consult a counsellor.