Understanding stress

What is stress?

The term stress has multiple dictionary definitions. It can be a state of strain that a component or a building is under, for example. When something is stressed, it can also be said to be underlined or emphasised in some way. There again, stressful moments can occur during films or plays, which are supposed to lead to tension and suspense. All of these meanings of the word have their place, of course. That said, what most people understand the term to be today refers to their emotional and psychological states. In other words, being stressed is not so much physical – although, of course, joints and muscles can be stressed, too – but to do with emotional and mental pressure. It can come about at work, at home or because of the expectations we have of ourselves. It is usually most keenly felt when we are outside of our comfort zones or feeling loss, perhaps as a result of grief, for example.

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What causes stress?

As mentioned, there are multiple different causes of the strains people feel. One common one is when workplace stresses become over or under-burdensome. This is called occupational stress. There again, similar feelings of anxiety can come from home or trying to manage work and home life, the so-called work-life balance. In the worst cases, this can lead to a complete blowout which is like a psychological safety valve going off that means you can no longer cope adequately. In the end, however, being stressed is an emotive and psychological state. Therefore, it can be caused by a build-up of negative thought processes and of certain hormones in the body. In other words, it is just as susceptible to internal, as well as external, factors. Some steroid hormones, like cortisol, can lead to greater feelings of strain. They, in turn, can be released from exposure to external stresses.

What does a stress coach do?

As you can see, feeling stressed can lead to greater feelings of anxiety that the sensation will continue. As such, it can become something of a vicious cycle. However, a coach who specialises in stress management can help you overcome these difficulties and break out from the cycle. Such coaches tend to work in different ways. Some will use meditation techniques, while others favour talking about problems. Some place a great emphasis on helping you to relax, while others will focus on building up greater resilience to the daily stresses we all face. In the main, however, they try to help you to find ways of identifying the feelings of anxiety and strain that you might feel and to take appropriate countermeasures. This might be deep breathing exercises, thinking of something less stressful or even walking away from a stressful situation.

How does stress affect happiness?

Simply put, being stressed means that your overall sense of how happy you are will be negatively impacted. This is not to say that you cannot be happy one moment and stressed the next, nor that you can be unhappy and also unstressed. Nevertheless, most psychologists agree that being stressed is linked to feelings of unhappiness, especially in oneself. Most people can imagine feeling stressed but also being happy for someone else's joy, for example. Of course, there are reasons why stress-related hormones and happiness are related. The more we are exposed to them, the more we tend to feel negative emotions. Overall, people will interpret gloominess, mood swings and other negative traits with their sense of happiness. If being unhappy is an umbrella term for negative emotions, then stress is also one that covers a range of reasons as to why those negative emotional states come about.

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How do you release stress?

People release the stresses they feel in a variety of ways. Taking time to unwind is, therefore, highly individualised. Some people like to curl up in bed with a good book, while others will prefer a glass or two of wine in the company of friends. Some people do hobbies to de-stress. Usually, these activities help to achieve 'flow'. In this sense, flow means keeping the mind active but not with something that is demanding and, therefore, stressful. Model making, knitting and painting are all well-known ways to de-stress. In addition, people use sports and physical activity to help them feel less stressed out. This is because hormones are released that counteract the stress-related ones when we work out or even just go for a stroll. Some people also forest bathe, do yoga or simply allow their mind to empty out with a breathing exercise, too.

What is a stress-reduction plan?

Rather than simply de-stressing with the aforementioned activities, a stress-reduction plan will involve coming up with some more formal arrangements. They can be put together on your own or with the help of a professional, such as a stress coach. Usually, these plans will work on identifying stressors, the sorts of triggers that make you feel more stressed. These might be too much work, too little sleep or an argumentative relationship. Then, the plan will mean coming up with strategies for noticing such stressors and taking steps to avoid them. Some plans also involve measures to lower overall exposure to anxiety. This might mean improving diet, listening to chill-out music routinely or simply making some 'me time' when you can relax more deeply. The idea of the plan is to habituate yourself into certain behaviours and responses so that you cope with stressful situations better without really needing to think consciously about it.

Can music reduce stress?

Yes, it can. Various scientific studies into our human response to music have found that it can affect moods. If you listen to something aggressive, such as hard rock, then you might not find it to be a stress-reducer. However, chill-out music and some classical pieces have been found to reduce the levels of cortisol people have in their brains. In other words, even listening to such pieces inactively will help to calm you and make you feel less stressed. One study found that listening to calming music before bed for 45 minutes or so helped to promote better sleep patterns in adults. That's something that can help you to deal with the stresses you'll face the following day. Some research has suggested that slower music helps the brain to work at a different rate and encourages a more trance-like state, the sort of thing that is also detected in the neural cortices of people who are skilled meditators. Of course, dancing can also help to de-stress you, too.

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How do I know if I'm under stress?

There are various symptoms of a stressful lifestyle. The trouble with identifying them is that they tend to creep up on you. This is why people seem to be okay and managing their stresses and then proceed to full burnout, seemingly without any middle ground. The key things to look out for are physical. A tightening of the shoulders and the inability to allow them to drop down is a sure sign of stress. Raised hairs on your neck and arms are also associated with stress. You may also suffer from headaches, a loss of sleep or even a tightening of the jaw. All of these things are associated with the fight or flight response many animals have. It is a survival trait. When we expose ourselves to too many stressful situations, this can build up and become chronic stress that is hard to come down from. Some people develop stomach pains, a loss of libido or an erratic heartbeat when stresses are not handled effectively.

When is the stress level too high?

The fact of the matter is that stress is good for us. As previously mentioned, stressful situations promote a flight or fight response. This is a trait that has kept people alive and out of danger for millennia. However, in the modern world, we often expose ourselves to stresses every day and allow them to build up in a way that, for example, cavemen never would. Cave dwellers might have been stressed by encountering a sabre-toothed tiger, for example, but they wouldn't have set their alarm for a long shift in the office every day. That said, being pressured at work can get the best out of our performance. So there is a balance to strike between just the right level of pressure and not taking on too many stressful tasks. To be clear, stress is too high when it impacts negatively on our ability to perform by altering our psychological outlook, the first signs of which are usually physical.

What does stress do to your body?

In the long term, the symptoms of exposure to stress can cause damage. Sweating or breathing erratically due to anxiety and pressurised situations may be a fleeting thing that the body can recover from. This is often not the case if you start to feel stomach tension, however. Many overly stressed people develop ulcers in their stomachs which grow. These can be extremely painful, especially when they are exposed to certain foodstuffs. People with stress-related headaches may find they go after a time, but they can develop and get worse, even turning into migraines. The loss of libido that some people get when they feel stressed can also have a longer-term effect and develop into erectile dysfunction, for example. Some people might even have a panic attack as a result of hyperventilating, a common issue among stressed-out people.

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Can stress be good?

To answer the question of whether stress is good, you have to see it as something that is natural. In other words, although modern life places a great deal of emphasis – rightly – on how to de-stress and be better at relaxing, there can also be little doubt that people thrive on it. After all, it is being stressed that often causes people to try harder, to achieve more or to attempt something no one else has done. It can warn us of impending danger and prepare us for tricky situations. Without it, we might just amble through life without really pushing ourselves. Most athletes and professional sportspeople know this and use their stresses to get the best out of themselves. This is all good and positive, of course. The problem with being stressed is when it becomes too much to bear. What's worse is that it is tricky to know exactly when it stops being good and starts to be bad.

Is stress a killer?

On its own, being stressed will not kill you. However, that answer only goes so far in explaining the relationship between stress and mortality. People who are stressed in the chronic sense of the term – that is, they suffer from it for a prolonged period – will often face co-morbidities that can affect their life expectancy. For example, people who get heart palpitations when they feel stressed will be more likely to go on to develop conditions like heart disease than the general population. Heart disease is a significant killer in the Western world. The same goes for cancer, of course. Indeed, certain types of cancer are more prevalent among stressed out and anxious people than others. Furthermore, some of the more severe psychological outcomes that are associated with people being overly stressed can also lead to self-harm and, in the worst cases, suicide.

What are the stages of stress?

The first stage people feel when they are stressed is the aforementioned flight or fight response. Typically, this will involve muscle tension and a drying of the mouth. The next stage is called resistance. This is when we fight back. Some people's bodies release anti-inflammatory hormones at this stage to help them handle their stresses, but others may not be so lucky and take longer to recover. The next step is called the coping or recovery stage. This is when the physical manifestations of the fight or flight response go away. However, residual psychological stresses may remain. The fourth stage is known as adaptation. This is when we learn how to better cope with the particular stressors that set us off in the first place. Finally, there is the burnout stage. Essentially, this occurs when we are exposed to stage one repeatedly without enough time for stages two, three and four to run their course in full.

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Stress in summary

In the end, stress is a psychological and emotive state that we all feel at times. Being stressed is not necessarily a bad thing, and many people will admit that they like to be stressed because it gets the best out of them. People can use it to motivate themselves, to get the best out of others and to deal with pressurised environments without succumbing to them. However, too much exposure to strains and pressure will take its toll even among people who are used to it. Severe exposure can even lead to long-term psychological conditions, such as PTSD, for example. For most people, managing stressful states means getting their work-life balance right. However, stresses can come about outside of work and the home, as well. Some people will get very stressed out in traffic jams, for example, while others simply wait patiently for the road to clear.

There are numerous established techniques for dealing with stress and feeling more relaxed. Taking a break and going on holiday is one that is tried and tested, for example. Failing that, you could try meditation, yoga, listening to music or taking up a hobby. Exercise often helps because it helps to release the right sort of hormones that counteract stressors. All of these measures won't defeat stresses, but they can improve our resilience to them. If nothing else, they will help you to sleep better, a big factor in the ability, or otherwise, to cope with the daily stresses everyone encounters in modern life.

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