Stress and Anxiety. Take your control back!
There’s little doubt that few of us in modern society haven’t suffered from stress and anxiety at some time or the other. Anxiety and stress are probably the two things we all have in common particularly as at times we’re bound to feel we have too much to do, things aren’t working as we want, or other people are making demands on us that we don’t have control over.
I always know I’m getting too stressed when I accidentally bite my tongue because my jaw’s so tense; when my shoulders feel like I’m carrying Dumbo across them; when sweet cravings wake me at midnight and force me with its invisible hand to sneak to the kitchen to raid the cookie jar; when my stomach retains a permanent clench even though the last time I did a sit-up was five years ago, and when the thought of Mr. Gin and his friend Diet Tonic has me salivating before I’ve even left the office.
Fortunately, I’ve learned (even though I do forget occasionally) to heed the signs. When I’m not in my self-imposed oblivion I can generally start the process to control my stress knowing that even though it’s not considered to be a medical condition, if I allow it to continue for a long time, it may result in me being getting depression or severe anxiety.
I declare that I’m a scaredy-cat and aware that these conditions can then lead to more severe mental health problems and a range of more serious physical medical conditions, which no scaredy-cat wants!
Are you suffering from anxiety, stress or depression?
If at the moment you’re suffering from anxiety, stress, or depression you’ll probably think why is she asking me this? I pose this question to you because I’ll be sharing an alternate look at anxiety and stress.
There will be serious parts but I’m also going to purposely make things light to counter the seriousness and bring balance to what I know is a serious subject because I’ve been there too and can, therefore, give my take on it.
So what is this thing called stress?
Stress is a normal physical response to events that make us feel threatened or upsets our equilibrium in some way. It’s our fight or flee response but here’s a spoiler alert: Those of us with over-fertile imaginations or of a suspicious disposition might feel threatened anxious and stressed even if it’s not real.
Here’s an example:
We see two lads approaching in hoodies and our first thought is run for the bushes…they’re going to mug us, beat us up, take our Nike trainers!!!
Ooops…They were just two cold lads in hoodies that were on their way to Uni and were discussing quantum physics. All that stress was wasted on the perceived fear that guys in hoodies are always bad!
What is our stress response mechanism?
Our stress response mechanism, is our body’s way of protecting us, let’s pretend it’s like our own built-in army of soldiers that rush to our defense when as a result of perceived threat a chemical reaction triggers in our body releasing adrenaline and cortisol hormones.
Our adrenaline army marches into action increasing our heart rate, our breath quickens our muscles tighten and our blood pressure rises all with the aim to help us fight or run like bats out of hell so we can prevent injury.
Our cortisol army who are the primary front line hormone guys, increase the sugars in our bloodstream enhancing our brain’s use of the glucose to increase the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Wow! …that’s a lot of action going on!
Can stress be harmful?
As stated before stress is not always considered harmful, and it’s worth noting that a certain level of stress may be necessary and even enjoyable if it helps us prepare for challenges or complete something we choose eg: Work deadlines, preparation for a race, or a performance.
In these instances, stress can be beneficial in keeping us focused and alert. Imagine how rubbish we’d be if we didn’t get the adrenaline energy pumping when we needed to!
In emergencies, stress can also be helpful in giving us the additional strength we need to defend and protect ourselves. In addition to this, there are people who in extremely stressful situations have shown extraordinary strength. Lydia Angiyou saved several children by fighting a polar bear until a local hunter shot it. Tom Boyle hoisted a Chevy Camaro to free a trapped cyclist in Tucson, Arizona. This capacity is known as hysterical strength.
When can anxiety and stress become harmful?
So we have our hormone army leaping to our defense when we’re stressed and that’s a good thing, right? …so what’s happening when anxiety and stress become too much? Unfortunately, the list is long even though not everything will apply to everyone; the reason being we’re all different, and have individual levels of tolerance to situations because we all perceive life differently.
A situation that is stressful to one person can in actual fact be very stimulating to another. Hey, I could think of nothing worse than climbing Mount Everest when I feel sick on a bridge or fighting the competition to clinch the million-pound deal when I dislike being competitive, but many find these things exhilarating!
Problems can arise when there is stress overload which comes about after prolonged stressfulness. This can lead to prolonged anxiety, burnout, and can sometimes lead to prolonged depression. Yikes! It…sounds long to me!
Some of the reported long-term negative effects of stress can be:
- Lowered immunity
- Inability to think clearly
- Decreased bone density
- High blood pressure
- Increase in abdominal fat storage
- Suppressed thyroid activity
What can the warning signs of too much stress be?
The list of the effect of long term stress is seriously serious, and I know you like I was, must be eager to know what the warning signs are particularly as our wonderful bodies are always keen to show us what we’re doing to it, good or bad.
Heads up, it’s a long list! That’s a good thing as it highlights some of the common warning signs that stress could become a dangerous factor in our life …forewarned is forearmed, eh?
If only a few of the symptoms apply to you, you’ve got to give yourself a high five if you can be bothered to take up my silly suggestion when you’re so chilled. On the other hand, if you’re like the majority of us it’ll be clear that the more signs that apply, and the longer they last, the greater your susceptibility to reaching overload and physical and mental ill-health.
Some of the reported physical symptoms of stress overload can be:
- Frequent colds
- Nausea and dizziness
- Loss of sex drive
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Aches and pains
- Mental symptoms of stress overload
- Anxiety and racing thoughts
- A constant state of worrying
- Lack of concentration
- Memory problems
- Inability to be positive
Additionally, some of the reported emotional symptoms of stress overload can be:
- Feeling lonely and isolated
- Inability to relax
- Depression or unhappiness
- Behavioural symptoms of stress overload
- Eating more or less than usual
- Using alcohol, drugs or cigarettes to relax
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Nervous behaviour like pacing and nail-biting
How many symptoms could you tick? And…What causes us to become stressed in the first place?
Again, it’s worth noting that as we’re all different there are no hard and fast rules about what life circumstances will affect or influence our stress tolerance levels but one of the common factors is circumstances associated with change and lack of control over what is happening in our lives.
It’s also worth recognising that circumstances that bring change to our lives can also be happy events, which we are choosing. These events whilst they may have us grinning like a Cheshire cat and fist-pumping an invisible target can still be overwhelming and also stressful even though enjoyable in the long run. Let’s look at some examples:
Moving house – Apart from the legal and/or financial demands of moving house, this activity is a major shift in most of our lives and the uprooting of what we are accustomed too. It heralds a significant change, requires organisation, physical work and until complete is fraught with things that could go wrong.
Insufficient support network – A strong network of family and friends can be a significant buffer against the inevitable challenges that life will throw up. Without this, isolation and lack of support can easily create vulnerability to stress and anxiety.
Getting married and having a baby – Whilst these examples aren’t necessarily connected apart from the fact that we’re likely to be cooing into another face, the significant changes they bring to our lives can be extremely stressful as each is fraught with the unknown and factors that are outside of our control. Will I be happy with my spouse …will I be a good parent?
Being unable to deal with your emotions – If you don’t have the mechanism or ability to calm yourself when life circumstances challenge and you feel angry or sad, you’ll be very vulnerable to stress. Fortunately help is never far away whether you access it through Talking Therapy or if you adopt practices to help you learn to balance and cope with adversity.
Bereavement – There’s little doubt that the death of a loved one or friend is something that challenges most of us and can be heightened depending on the circumstances of the death. Feeling stressed is a natural response to our loss and sense of vulnerability at what is inevitable in our lives. The grieving process is essential and there is no time span to it, but the prolonged stress it can produce, can tip us into stress overload and its inevitable consequences.
Unemployment and poverty – Innate in our makeup is the need to survive and employment is a crucial element for us to be able to provide food and shelter for ourselves and those dependent on us. Being out of work, or dealing with financial problems causes significant stress in our lives and if solutions are not found, can cause stress overload which in most cases makes things even worse.
Relationship problems – Very few of us, if any, are challenged when our relationships are out of sync with our happiness. Dependent on the circumstances, lack of love, understanding, empathy, support and a host of other factors that healthy relationships bring, can cause significant stress in our lives. Holding on to stressful relationships will take its toll at some time or the other.
Hey …what can I say …life sucks at times and no-one’s going to escape inevitable challenges that will stress and make us anxious. …If any of the above examples in this article are relevant to you, the good news is that you don’t have to be victim to prolonged stress, there are many ways to relieve the stress in your life.
Relieving your stress in a healthy way
Stressful events are facts of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation but you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you.
Firstly learn to identify what stresses you and how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in the face of stressful situations, you might want to try to implement strategies like these:
- Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise and plenty of sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques like yoga, deep breathing, massage or learning to meditate
- Taking time for hobbies, such as dancing, reading or listening to an audio book or listening to music
- Develop friendships that are mutually harmonious and balanced
- Consider developing a spiritual focus that can bring you comfort
- Practice regular journaling to express your thoughts before they become internalised and confusing
- Seeking professional counselling when needed
And to bring things back to my favourite focus ……
SMILE the biggest, cheesiest, widest smile your face can make. SMILE with the innocence of a child. SMILE just because you can …and understand there are facts to prove why it’s not a crazy idea!
Smiling lowers stress because it affects certain muscles within the body that make you feel happy. The movement of muscles in your face releases chemicals called endorphins which trigger a positive feeling that lowers stress levels and the great thing if all you want to do is cry into your fish and chips, is you don’t have to be happy for it to work.
Smiling and laughing boosts your immune system. In addition to the release of endorphins laughing and smiling also encourages the release of serotonin which is a neurotransmitter that contributes to a person’s wellbeing and happiness. It’s fantastic and has many positive benefits one of which is boosting the immune system. Put anxiety and stress firmly in its place because just as the L’Oreal advert says:
YOU’RE WORTH IT!