What is this thing we call stress?
It appears to be something of a buzzword that everyone uses these days to describe difficult or challenging life experiences.
Simply put, stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined, the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the "stress response".
Everyone experiences stressful situations in many different forms throughout life. We’re often warned about what stress can do but do we really understand the impact of the wrong kind of stress or being continuously stressed?
To answer the question, we first need to know how the stress response system works.
When we feel threatened, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepares the body for emergency action. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and our senses become sharper.
These physical changes increase body strength and stamina, speed reaction time, and enhance our focus—preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.
Once the perceived danger or emergency is over, our stress system is then free to return to a state of calm again-until the next time it’s called on. Right?
Well, it’s true that when working properly, the stress response helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert which in emergency situations, can provide extra strength to defend and protect us in life situations.
In day-to-day living, stress is what keeps us on your toes for that works presentation job interview or maybe taking a driving test and stress can help us rise to meet challenges.
So yes, in an ideal situation, the stress system would work as described but instead, it seems to have so much more to be on guard against these days!
Our nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats so many more people are experiencing major difficulties managing their stress levels.
Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process.
It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
A few health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:
Depression and anxiety
Pain of any kind
Skin conditions, such as eczema
Thinking and problems with memory
Ok, I have to admit that I enjoy filling my time with all sorts of creative projects and I get a kick out of being ‘on the go’. I’m sure that my attitude developed as a result of having a childhood illness that meant I was sometimes in hospital-laid up in bed for weeks at a time.
So, I guess I am now the sort of person that prefers to be upright… always looking for challenging things to occupy myself with, whether on a recreational level or in my work.
I can sometimes bite off more than I can chew which left unchecked begins to produce the wrong chemicals in the body.
I know first- hand that beyond a certain point, the once productive stress that usually serves to keep us excited and focused slowly becomes like a poison running through the nervous system.
It starts causing major damage to our health, our mood, our productivity, our relationships, and our quality of life.
With an autoimmune condition, I am much more aware about how stress affects me. Negative thoughts, raised ugly voices during rows, anger and frustration are among the top worst emotions for me to engage in as they often result in a sudden, pounding headache, fatigue and numbness in my legs afterwards.
I once even developed a sort of temporary blindness in one eye after having a steaming row with a friend.
The Tragedy of burying loved ones and the mixed emotions I held after shutting down my 15 year design business also created the biggest and most destructive stress triggers that my system had dealt with in many years!
My body was shutting down because it was in a continuously, hightened state of shock. I no longer had a calm period-but was instead quickly burning out.
Around this time, my autoimmune condition came to life and wouldn’t shut down. It is both fascinating and terrifying just how stress can affect us.
My saving grace was being able to first identify what was now fueling or creating a number of symptoms and then use a number of tools to begin calming my immune system-but it was still only after a couple of years of being so unwell that the ‘drowning feeling’ I'd had battled for so long, finally left my stress system.
If you tend to get stressed out frequently—as many of us do in today’s demanding world—your body may be in a heightened state of stress most of the time. And that can lead to serious health problems.
What can you do to keep an eye on your stress response system?
There are simple things you can do to try and consciously avoid some of the stress triggers I mentioned earlier.
Take a 'Time out' break before your activities overwhelm you. Short breaks work best and are easier to factor in.
When you are here, use your 'time out' to meditate, listen to soothing music or engage your mind in a breathing awareness exercise.
I also believe that the act of recognizing that you are in a stressful position in the first place and then working to remove it helps to manage and modify the long term negative impacts of living with the wrong kind of stress.
The techniques you can use for instant calming are visualization and mantra work. I like the fact that both can be used-and practiced anywhere and don't cost anything! If I feel sad, anxious or nervous about something, the first thing to do is to try and slow the pace of your heart which is usually pounding or racing at that moment.
Leaving you with something I do:
To slow things down, I imagine that I'm in a garden surrounded by the sweetest smelling flowers that I really love such as freesia. I take deep breaths to fully hold on to the smell and as I do this, I repeat a mantra in my head or out loud. I also use this technic if I'm having some difficulty winding down or sleeping. Lying in bed, I begin to repeat a mantra in my head and initially feel that it's not working and I'm still awake but in the morning, I always wander how and when I finally driffted off.
What do you do?