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How Chronic Stress Can Affect You and What You Can Do About It

Stress is something we all feel, it’s a natural reaction, as normal to our human experience as our emotions. Stress can save our lives, making us run from dangerous situations, it can motivate us, and we need a certain level of stress within our lives. But it can also be very damaging and detrimentally impact our mental and physical health. So, what exactly is stress and what are the warning signs that stress is negatively affecting us?

What is stress?

In the simplest terms stress is the body’s reaction when we come under threat or are exposed to mental or emotional pressure.

To keep us safe an area of the brain called the amygdala acts as our emergency response centre, automatically activating the alarm to trigger a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response when it senses we are in danger. To help us escape the threat, it floods our system with adrenaline and cortisol which increases our heart rate, blood pressure and the efficiency of our lungs, sending more blood and oxygen to our brains and muscles preparing our bodies for fight or flight.

This is all useful and has kept us alive when we have needed to escape from a woolly mammoth or get out of the way of a car.

When our amygdala senses danger it roots the blood and oxygen flow primarily to the amygdala rather than our prefrontal cortex which is the rational thinking part of our brain, thereby reducing our ability to think and problem solve.

The problem is this also happens when our emotions are running high.

When we feel emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear, rage and stress it can activate our amygdala increasing blood and oxygen flow there overriding our rational thinking prefrontal cortex, causing us to overreact to situations. Psychologist Daniel Goldman called this the ‘amygdala hijack’ as the situation doesn’t need such an intense response.

The amygdala hijack may lead you to acting inappropriately or irrationally often followed by a sense of embarrassment and regret. Examples of an amygdala hijack could be a customer shouting at a shop assistant as a product they want is out of stock, throwing a tennis racket to the ground when you have lost a game, being told a family member has been rushed to hospital but being so distressed you don’t hear the details or road rage.

Different types of stress

Acute – symptoms develop very quickly, within a few minutes to a few hours of a stressful event and it is over relatively quickly. This is the most common and least damaging type of stress.

Chronic – This is a prolonged, often overwhelming and constant feeling of stress which can negatively impact a person’s daily life and health, leading to burnout if it goes untreated. Chronic stress affects almost every system in the body producing both psychological and physical symptoms which can include:

  • Unable to concentrate

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Memory problems

  • Eating too much or too little

  • Jaw clenching/teeth grinding

  • Tiredness

  • Muscle aches and headaches

  • Chest pain

  • Feeling dizzy, sick or faint

  • Stomach problems

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Feeling irritable, angry or tearful

  • Anxiousness

  • Depression

  • Racing thoughts

  • Unable to switch off or relax

  • Sense of dread

  • Poor selfcare

What does stress look like?

When a person is acutely stressed or responding to a stressful event, we often see the following physical changes:

  • Sweaty palms

  • Rapid breathing

  • Racing heart

  • Tense muscles

But when people have chronic stress or feel overwhelmed it can look quite different to the stress response above. Psychologist Connie Lillas describes the three most common ways people respond when they are overwhelmed through this driving analogy:

Foot on the accelerator: An angry, agitated, or “fight” stress response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.

Foot on the brake: A withdrawn, depressed, or “flight” stress response. You shut down, pull away, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.

Foot on both: A tense or “freeze” stress response. You become frozen under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.

What causes stress?

So many things can cause stress. Anything which makes us feel out of control can cause stress, there are so many possible causes the list can be exhaustive but here are just a few examples:

  • Finances

  • Relationship issues

  • Caring duties

  • Work demands

  • Exams

  • New job

  • Moving house

  • Getting married

  • Grief

  • Loneliness

  • Feeling unheard/unseen

  • Feeling misunderstood

  • Health concerns

  • Lack of sleep

  • Perfectionism

  • Pessimism

  • Negative self-talk

  • Being too busy

At times it may not be one particular thing that causes a person to feel high levels of stress but it can be a multitude of reasons, each one on there own might feel manageable to the person but when the added together, collectively they become too much and can cause the person to feel stressed. A useful way to look at this is the Stress Bucket.

The Stress Bucket

Imagine you have a bucket. There are four different levels marked on the side of the bucket, these are:

  • relaxed,

  • coping well,

  • becoming stressed/anxious and

  • overflowing/overwhelmed.

Above your bucket are taps. Each tap represents a different cause of stress for you and the water from each of these taps flows into your bucket.

Any activities that relax you such as talking to your friends and family, exercising, practising mindfulness or hobbies act like holes in your bucket, allowing water to slowly escape, keeping the water level in your bucket and your stress levels low.

Ideally, we want to keep the water level of our bucket at the relaxed or coping well levels.

If you have more things causing you stress, then your number of taps might increase, and they may start flowing faster causing water level to rise in your bucket.

To manage your stress levels, you should identify your taps (your sources of stress) and then find ways to slow the flow down or switch them off altogether. You should also look at the holes in your bucket (your relaxation methods). Stress can make you withdraw from things you enjoy so as your stress levels rise you might find you have stopped doing some of the things which relax you, effectively blocking the holes in your bucket. Try to maintain these relaxing activities and find other things which could help you. The more holes you add the more water you can release from your bucket.

Keep an eye on the water level in your bucket, when your bucket becomes too full it can impact both your mental and physical health.

Ways to reduce stress.

There are lots of ways to reduce stress. It is important that you take care of yourself, getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, reducing your alcohol intake and exercising regularly will really help manage and reduce stress levels.

Having a good support network of friends, family and colleagues that you can talk to can help ease your troubles, give you a different perspective and help you relax.

Taking time to look after yourself and doing things you really enjoy can also have a positive impact on your health and help you manage stress. These can be simple things such as taking a relaxing bath, lighting candles, reading a book to yoga or having a massage. Making time for your hobbies will also help. When stress levels rise it can be very easy to let these things slip but taking time for yourself is vital to living a healthy life.

Adopting a positive mindset and thinking patterns can decrease stress. We may not have control over our stressors, when this is the case accept the things you can’t change and focus on the things you do have control over. Feeling out of control causes stress so bringing your focus back to what you can control is an important part of reducing stress. Practicing gratitude helps to nurture a more positive outlook. To do this, find three things each day that went well during the day or that you are grateful for no matter how small.

Spending time in nature has been proven to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A study by the University of Michigan has found that spending 20 to 30 minutes outside during daylight boosts mood. To find out more about this you can read my article The Stress Relieving and Mind Boosting Benefits of Nature.

Promoting a mentally healthy workplace

Mental health should be an important part of your organisational strategy. There are many ways in which you can create a mentally healthy workplace and it is important to find approaches that suit your business and your team. If you are introducing a focus on mental health for the first time in your business, it is important to be authentic in your approach and allow time for the changes to be embedded. If it marks quite a change to your culture be prepared for your changes to take time, culture can’t be changed overnight, but preserve, lead by example and these changes can become embedded.

A great place to start is to look at your business’s values and ensure they are central to everything you do. If you communicate your values well during the recruitment process, you are more likely to attract candidates who share these values. Our individual core values are incredibly important to us and our sense of identity so working for a business whose values are conflicting to our own can cause intense and significant stress. Likewise, if your business doesn’t fulfil the values it says it holds this too can cause confusion, disconnect and stress.

Building on values a sense of purpose and sharing your organisation’s purpose can also benefit mental health in the workplace. Several studies have shown that people with a strong sense of purpose tend to have better mental health and overall well-being compared to those who lack a sense of purpose. Ensuring that people know what motivates the business, why it does what it does and understanding the part they play within this can build a sense of purpose. Everyone in your team or organisation matters, they are all integral to achieving your shared goal and they should feel this.

A crucial element of mentally healthy workplaces is good communication and transparency. If people know what is happening and feel able to ask questions, they feel more empowered and in control. People like to be kept informed, understand what is going on and how it affects them. Poor communication between management and the workforce can lead to feelings of powerlessness and anxiety which increases stress especially during times of change.

These elements should be built into every workplace. There are a wide range of other ideas you could incorporate into your workplace such as:

  • Staff recognition

  • Introducing plants into your workspace

  • Walking meetings

  • Flexible working

  • Volunteering

  • Yoga sessions

  • Mindfulness sessions

  • Team lunches

  • Regular fun activities

  • Training opportunities

  • Mentoring and peer support

The important thing is to pick things that will resonate with your team and work for you.

Be Your Best Version offers workshops focusing on reducing stress, avoiding burnout and enhancing mental health in the workplace as well as individual and team coaching. To arrange a free chat to see how we could work together click here.

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