What is stress?
Stress is an innate reaction embedded from our caveman days. Humans had to deal with threatening situations, which caused our brains to release a range of ‘stress chemicals’ such as cortisol and adrenaline to provoke what is known as the fight-or-flight reaction. The fight reaction would give us a burst of energy, ready to fight for our lives, while the flight reaction would encourage us to flee from danger and protect ourselves. These days, we rarely encounter threatening situations. However, our brains continue to react in this way when we are under pressure.
Stress typically begins as pressure – from ourselves or others – and if we are unable to cope with this pressure, we feel stressed. The effects of stress will differ from person to person, but if left untreated it can lead to illness.
When we experience pressure without an option for fight-or-flight, the stress chemicals can build up and affect our immune system and blood pressure. Over time this build-up of stress can affect our mental health too, leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
Causes of stress
All sorts of situations can cause stress, and the causes will depend on the individual – what may cause stress for one person may not be stressful for another. Having said this, most stressful situations are associated with change or a lack of control. Even if the change is a positive one, it can still be stressful. Some common causes of stress include moving house, having a baby, serious illness, bereavement and divorce.
In some cases, the absence of change or activities in life can be another source of stress. As well as events like these, stress can also be caused by long-term circumstances, such as being unemployed, having financial issues, relationship difficulties, caring for a disabled family member/friend, working too much and problems at work.
As previously mentioned, stress is experienced individually and some personalities find themselves more susceptible to stress than others. Having said this, there are certain symptoms that are commonly associated with stress. These can affect us both emotionally and physically.
Emotional stress symptoms
Feeling agitated, frustrated or quick to anger.
Feeling overwhelmed and teary.
Having a low sense of self-esteem.
Avoiding other people and social situations.
Physical stress symptoms
Using alcohol/drugs/food to seek comfort.
Digestive problems and upset stomach.
Why does stress affect me physically?
The physical side effects of stress occur when the body prepares to respond to a threat. This is due to the hormones that are released by your brain during the fight or flight response – these include adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can make you feel more alert, so you can act faster and make your heart beat faster to carry blood quickly to where it’s needed most.
Then, when you feel the danger has passed, your body releases other hormones to help your muscles relax, which may cause you to shake. If you’re often stressed it’s likely you are producing high levels of these hormones, which can make you feel physically unwell and could affect your health in the longer term. People’s tolerance of stress differs, meaning for some the effects will be severe but for others, they will be manageable.
When should I seek help for stress?
The issue with stress is that it exists as a problem that feeds on itself, and over time lowers your ability to cope. Because of this – the sooner you seek help for stress, the better. As stress is often viewed as simply a ‘part of life’, it can be difficult to know when outside support is needed.
As a rule, you should look to seek help if the following is happening:
Stress (and the effects of stress) dominate your life.
Stress is affecting your physical health.
You are using unhealthy coping methods to deal with stress.
Counselling for stress
One recommendation commonly offered by doctors is counselling and psychotherapy. Talking with a professional about the difficulties you’re experiencing can help you understand any underlying issues that may be causing your stress – for example, low self-esteem. Working with your counsellor, you will then be able to identify your personal stress triggers and discuss ways of coping with them.
Find out more about Stress, arrange a call back for an initial conversation or book an appointment +44 (0)1932 853001.
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