What is Stress and How to Successfully Manage It

workplace stress

Stress and its impact

Stress is one of those words that is used very casually. We talk about being stressed when faced with a choice of which dress to buy for an important event or when we canít find the charger for our mobile phone.

Real stress, however, has a huge impact on our health. If you already have a long term health condition, it is even more important that you learn how to reduce your stress levels.

So, what exactly is stress?

Professor Stephen Palmer, an expert in stress and stress management, defines it thus: “stress occurs when perceived pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope”[1]

We all need a certain amount of pressure in our lives to make it enjoyable; that thrill when you go on a first date, the nerves as you walk into an exam room, the fun of trying something new. When you are choosing a dress or hunting for the charger, what you are feeling is pressure.

However, if you feel that the pressure has become too much, perhaps your boss is giving you more work than you feel you can cope with or a relationship is going through a bad patch and you are worried your partner will leave you, then your stress responses kick in.

The stress response and mechanism behind it

To understand the stress response, we have to wander into the world of neuroscience to get a feel for how the brain works. At any given time, your brain is being bombarded with hundreds of pieces of information through your five senses. Your brain processes that information faster than any super computer and it does this by comparing the new information with things that have happened before.

If you pick up an apple, your brain will process the information that your eyes, nose and fingers send to it, compare it with what it has learnt before and come back with apple.

stress reaction, work overload

This happens so fast you are not even aware of it. If you pick up a strange fruit that you have never seen before, the brain takes longer to process it and you will find yourself turning it over in your hands, perhaps smelling it and looking for a sign to tell you what it is. This information processing starts from the moment you are born.

What about if you see a tiger loose in the street? Our brains process this slightly differently. The human brain has been in development for thousands of years.

Fight or flight?

The first part to develop was the part at the back of your head just above your spine – called the amygdala. This is the most basic brain form and it’s here that the things you do to stay alive (such as breathing) are controlled. It’s also where the fight or flight response is triggered. This response prepares your body to either fight or flee from the potential danger and it was essential in the days when if you hesitated for a minute, you could end up being eaten!

Back to the tiger. As soon as you see it, the brain starts running through its processes. A signal is sent along the neural pathways to the areas that control your sight, hearing etc. and to the part of your brain that makes decisions about risk.

However, part of that signal is sent directly to the amygdala. As soon as the amygdala receives the signal, it sends out a flood of hormones into your system. Your heart starts beating faster, your blood vessels constrict except for those supplying your arms, legs and heart, your pupils dilate, your mouth becomes dry and you get that feeling of butterflies in your stomach as your digestive system slows right down.

This all happens incredibly quickly, before the rest of your brain has even had time to process that it’s a tiger on the loose. The technical term for the system that does all this is the sympathetic system and as well as the brain, the adrenal glands and pituitary glands are involved. Hormones such as noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol are released.  Now that this is all in place, you can run away from the tiger as fast as you can - the flight response.

The fight response works in exactly the same way. To put it in the relevant context, imagine you are in a traffic jam. Then, someone cuts in front of you all those hormones start rushing around your body and your body gets itself ready for a fight.

When the danger is past, your parasympathetic system then sends out a different hormone so that your heart rate returns to normal, your blood starts flowing again and your stomach gets back to the business of digesting your food. If you are sitting comfortably relaxed in a chair reading this, it’s your parasympathetic system that’s in charge.

stress mechanism, dealing with stress

Application to today’s world

Now you are probably thinking this is all very interesting but the only tigers you have seen have been safely behind bars in a zoo. What does this have to do with you?

In this modern age, we are bombarded with more information than at any other time in human existence. Remember that this information is being gathered from the moment you are born. The human brain takes longer to develop to full maturity than any other animal.

In fact, all the connections aren’t complete until you are in your early twenties. The amygdala doesn’t know the difference between a tiger and a maths exam you haven’t studied for. It just processes that it’s scary, so let’s get those hormones flowing.

In some people, the flight or fight response is activated way more often than usual, especially if as a child they felt very insecure in their environment. This can mean that even simple things like loud noises or strong smells can be perceived as a threat, setting off the sympathetic system.

Why to manage stress

Eventually, your body becomes overloaded with cortisol and things start to go wrong. Some people have heart attacks or strokes; others may use alcohol or drugs to alleviate the stress. In some cases, mental health problems such as depression or anxiety may develop.

When you have a long-term health condition, your body is already under stress from dealing with that. The difficulties you may be having around work, relationships etc. will be adding further to your stress levels.

calm, managing stress, meditation

How to manage stress

So you can see that learning to manage stress is very important. Each of us is different, so we all react differently in a given situation.

Take some time out to think about your daily routine and look at the areas where you feel stressed. See if there are ways that you can change or adapt things to make your life easier.

There are lots of ways to destress...listening to music, relaxation techniques, going for a walk in nature, mindfulness, yoga, tai chi...The list goes on. Finding what works for you may take some trial and error but it will be worth it.

Sometimes, the biggest cause of stress is the thoughts that we have and how we react to them. If we think, "I can't cope", our stress levels soar. If we react badly to things other people say, if we keep wishing that our lives could go back to the way they were in the past or if we feel that we are being a burden to our loved ones, stress will be a constant companion.

A life coach can help you deal with stress, working with you to change the way you think about things, helping you to find the best stress relief techniques and helping you to see the difference between pressure and stress.

What are your best techniques for dealing with stress? Share them in the comments!

Silimar articles you might find interesting:

  1. What You Didn't Know About Maintaining a Positive Mental Attitude
  2. Dealing with Anxiety: The Toll It Takes on Our Wellbeing
  3. How to Notice Your Stress Triggers and De-stress?

[1] Palmer, S and Cooper, G: How to deal with Stress (2007) (Kogan Page)

Amanda Merrigan (1 review ) Life Coach

Personal development and life coaching for people with long term health conditions. Your diagnosis doesn't mean your life is over. Read more