What is Stress?
STRESSED IS DESSERTS SPELT BACKWARDS
I fell in love with this quote a number of years ago – not least because I love anything sweet, but also because this simple quote is a fun yet simple way of helping people understand that whilst stress has a bad reputation – this is often actually because we are looking at it the wrong way.
Stress, I’m stressed, this is stressful - all common daily words and phrases that get heard and spoken every single day – particularly at the moment. The word stress has many, many connotations and means so many different things to different people but let’s be honest – very rarely do people associate it with anything positive or good.
When you look into it, however, stress is our bodies' internal superhero, the intent of our stress response is to help us overcome threats, problems and challenges and in reality – as a race – it has played a key role in ensuring our survival.
Stress is an automatic physiological response in the body that causes a series of reactions and behaviours all with the intent of helping you. It starts when a ‘threat’ is perceived, as soon as this happens it releases chemicals (hormones cortisol and adrenaline) which – in a nutshell – prepare you for pretty much anything.
Increase your heartrate
Send extra oxygen to every cell of your body
Prepare your muscles for action
Put your mind on high alert (so it can see dangers and solutions more easily)
Pauses unnecessary bodily functions (such as the digestive and immune systems) for the duration of the ‘stressful’ situation so it can focus all its energy and resources on helping you with that.
Pretty clever really – and this has worked for thousands of years, right back to caveman days. It was the stress response that gave cavemen the extra energy and power they needed to run away from predators, this then evolved into helping them figure out how to make spears and weapons so they didn’t have to run away every time.
These days, that same knee-jerk stress response is triggered whenever we feel threatened, just as it did back then but instead of a life-threatening predator, we are interpreting emails, news, text messages, phone calls, deadlines, traffic, children, work, relationships, lack of money etc as threats. Whilst our bodies are more than capable of managing a ‘shot’ of adrenaline & cortisol from time to time, it does need time to recover, repair and return back to neutral.
You can imagine though – if pretty much every area of our life is somehow causing our stress response to be triggered - we never get a break. This is where stress gets its bad reputation, as instead of helping you, those hormones start to cause all kinds of problems in your body and mind. They flood the area of the brain that could have seen the solution, they tire your muscles, your heart and your lungs, your digestive system never knows whether it should be on or off and of course your immune system is low so you start catching every cough & cold around you. When your brain is in this flooded, overwhelmed state it becomes irrational, memory starts to be affected and you feel even more threatened – and so it becomes a vicious cycle. This is Chronic Stress and is a state which, if left unchecked, can lead to more serious health issues.
At the moment, I don’t think anyone would question that we are surrounded by threats. From cost of living challenges to war, climate changes to health scares and much more in between. All very real and justified stressors, many of which are not in our control.
With that in mind, next time you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, even unwell and constantly worrying about what is happening around you – take a step back and remember all your body is trying to do is help you. It’s reacting this way because it believes you are being threatened in some way. It, quite simply, has an excess of stress hormones running through your system and needs a way to get rid. Now more than ever we need to prioritise activities that will eliminate or reduce those hormones. Exercise (in whatever way you are able to and that you will enjoy), laugh, sleep, fresh air (even just through an open window if that’s all you can do), deep breathing, good nutrition and hydration (with water, not wine!) are all excellent places to start. Switch off the news, take up a hobby, talk about things other than your stressors and schedule time with people who make you laugh and smile. You’d be amazed and how much of a difference even just 5 minutes can have.