This week we are looking at stress. What is stress? What causes stress and how can we manage it?! Thank you Angela Stathakis Porisse for this wonderful article!
The stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline
There are two types of stress, ‘immediate stress’ (acute stress), and ‘every day stress’ (chronic stress) which trigger the release of two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.
The role of adrenaline is in the short term to
• Increase heart rate
• Increase blood pressure
The role of cortisol is in the long term to
• replenish lost energy stores
• organise bodily systems (immune, circulation, lungs, heart, metabolism…)
Our bodies need a steady and predictable daily secretion of cortisol in our blood to function. Cortisol works as an anti-inflammatory, it mobilizes white blood cells (our little infection fighting soldiers) and positions them in the body where there may be a perceived threat of infection.
These stress response hormones were critical in prehistoric times when our ancestors were faced with immediate threats in the wild, and the brain activated a ‘fight or flight’ response. We still require these hormone responses today, for example, when faced with a life or death situation. Being faced with an immediate threat, real or perceived, is known as acute stress. The stress hormones are released and once the danger has passed, our body should return back to normal. However, in today’s fast paced life, when our stress levels remain elevated, our bodies often don’t get the opportunity to return to normal. Cortisol ceases to be secreted into our blood in a steady or predictable fashion but remains elevated, or erratically peaks and dips. This is known as chronic stress.
By interfering with the natural rhythm of cortisol secretion, chronic stress can lead to many health problems such as
• weight gain
• sleep problems
• loss of libido
• heart disease
These are real psychological and physiological consequences of stress. In order to ensure our emotional and physical well-being, it is important to first acknowledge and recognise if we are suffering from stress, and then find a way through lifestyle changes to manage and reduce it. We should remember stress is part of life. As M. Scott Peck writes in the opening line of his bestselling self help guide, The Road Less Travelled, “Life is difficult”. Once we accept life is difficult, it is no longer difficult.
What triggers stress?
We all have different stress triggers that are seen by the brain as reason to stimulate the stress response. For me it is usually the time year, for example September, when the anxiety of back to school takes hold! The shopping lists, academic fears which I project onto my children, the overwhelming chaos of different activities in the first few weeks, returning from holiday, debt acquired over the summer or the infamous French tax bills.
Other stress triggers may be:
• pressure at work
• relationship problems
• financial worries
Some people are triggered by festivals (Christmas, Easter, Hanukah…) or large family gatherings such as weddings. By recognizing patterns in our life that cause us to feel vulnerable, we can begin to implement ways to support ourselves.
Strategies for managing and reducing chronic stress
1. Staying mindful
Staying present is one of the most beneficial ways in dealing with stress. So often we occupy our minds with things that have gone wrong in the past, or project what may go wrong in the future, that we are unable to appreciate where we are right now. In the present moment, everything is usually ok. Our brains are overloaded with ‘to do’ lists and the idea of taking time to practice mindfulness might seem unattainable. We can start by giving ourselves one minute at a time and then increase this gradually as we begin to incorporate mindfulness into our daily life. So how do we initiate a mindful moment?
Stop what you are doing, take a few deep breaths, check in with your body, pay attention to your feet on the ground. Create a pause just to be present and notice where you are.
Observe, without any judgement, your thoughts, your emotions, your reactions.
Forget about what has happened in the past, what you have ‘to do’, or your fears for the future.
Take one minute to be mindful in your day, before you rush out of the door or onto the next task.
2. Stop Multitasking!
With never ending to do lists and only so many hours in the day to complete them, we tend to overwhelm ourselves and try to take on too many tasks at the same time. Try focusing on only one chore at a time. By trying to do too many things at once we become easily distracted, and often never finish the task at hand. This can cause more stress as the to do list never feels completed.
If you are writing an email, put down the phone; if you are eating, don’t respond to that text message; if you are working, finish the task in hand before moving on to the next one. Often we run around doing hundreds of things at once, so busy we don’t stop from dawn to dusk. But is it useful being busy? Doing everything at once but getting nothing done? Or is it better to be productive? Concentrating on and completing one thing at a time is actually much more beneficial and productive. We then get to enjoy that great feeling of crossing things off the list!
3. Focus on the good
Between social media and increasing pressure to achieve everything yesterday, it is very easy to compare ourselves to others, and also to judge others. This can leave us feeling unworthy or superior, neither are positive feelings and can distract us from what is important.
Focus on the positive: what is right with you, and what is right with others. Sometimes we create stress with our perception of something. By changing our perspective from negative to positive we can see a situation differently, and what may have previously been a source of stress in our lives can become something we are grateful for…like family!!;)
4. Self Compassion
We can be incredibly critical, especially towards ourselves. A friend once told me that my self-criticisms were so cruel she would not use them against her enemy! This was a painful place to be, but I had no capacity for self-compassion. Some studies have actually shown that practicing self compassion can have positive benefits on our overall health, wellbeing and stress levels by:
• reducing depression
• reducing anxiety
• improving attention and concentration
• reducing blood pressure
• decreasing insulin resistance
• boosting body image
• decreasing emotional eating
You can practice self compassion exercises with these methods by self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff
5. Don’t Isolate…ask for help!
Trying to do everything alone is a great contributor to feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. There is no shame in asking for help, whether it be for emotional or physical support. I used to run myself ragged trying to do everything myself. It was a mixture of trying to prove I was capable, not wanting to show weakness and sheer perfectionism. It not only caused me to feel stressed, it also caused stress for those around me. When we are in that place of being overworked and over tired people around us often feel they are walking on eggshells so as not to trip the trigger! If you are tired, rest. If you are lonely, call someone. Ask for help, without judgement and realise that sometimes ‘ok’, is more than enough. We can relieve a lot of stress simply by delegating certain tasks.
6, Get sufficient sleep
Sleep in essential for our health, so not getting enough sleep, or bad quality sleep can have a negative impact on both our physical and mental well-being. We are much more efficient in stress management after a good night’s sleep, and being tired will increase our levels of stress. By practicing mindfulness and different ways to manage stress, we are more likely to improve our quality of sleep and break the stress/tiredness cycle. Some studies also show that a lack of sleep may increase hunger and snacking as well as slowing down our metabolism.
7. Fresh air and exercise
Being outdoors, fresh air, moving your body…being present. Literally “taking time to smell the flowers” can reduce stress and increase feelings of joy and gratitude. Getting moving is one of my favorite stress busters! Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins which are chemicals your brain naturally produces in response to pain. They improve our sleep which can then reduce stress. Endorphins are also released with laughter, they make us feel good, relieve tension and increase our self-esteem. Added to this exercise increases our flexibility which helps muscle relaxation when we are tense.