How can I manage my stress?
Stress is a normal and helpful response to a perceived threat, which may be a physical threat or a psychological one, however, in periods of sustained stress, this response needs to be consciously managed.

What is stress? Stress is a normal and helpful response to a perceived threat, which may be a physical threat or a psychological one. The stress response puts our bodies in to alert and watchful state as it increases our mind’s focus on the issue causing the stress, because when we are responding to a negative event we can’t afford to waste precious time pondering irrelevant things. The positive aspects of life become distractions from our bodies natural survival responses designed to keep us safe in a dangerous world, and as such, keeps our focus on negative things.

Stress puts our minds and bodies in a stimulated state, our minds vigilant, our heart rate elevated and muscles tense, ready to assess and respond to a negative event. We experience increased glucose uptake and even our immune system responds. In many people, however, the body does not know how to recognise when there are enough stress chemicals in the body and to cease production.

This ongoing bombardment of our bodies by stress chemicals can lead to weight gain, hypertension, a suppressed immune system, heart problems, and so on, as well as feelings of anxiety. Our brains can only handle a certain amount of this level of stimulation and need to be allowed to rest and recuperate. If we do not allow this, the neurons in our brains become exhausted and our brains suffer a loss of neuroplasticity, an issue that has been associated with depression.

Stress is primarily a subjective thing. Causes of stress often include issues such as failure to meet expectations, a loss of status or living standards, security, or something or someone important. Uncertainty is also often more stressful than knowing something bad is going to happen.

Comparing our situation to someone else who is experiencing worse circumstances does not help, if something is happening that we don’t like or don’t want to happen, we will experience a stress response. What stresses one person may not affect another, however, as our expectations, standards and understandings are derived from a mental model of how the world works, and this is developed and maintained by our memories, experiences and beliefs.

So how can we manage stress?

  • Working with someone to examine our own mental model of the world and make changes to reduce our stress may help. Cognitive behavioural therapy is particularly effective for this and many therapists are trained in this area.

  • Mindfulness refers to the act of deliberately focusing on the present, not ruminating about the past or worrying about what may or may not happen in the future but staying consciously in the present moment. This can increase feeling of safety and reduce our stress response. This technique is particularly useful in times when chronic threat exists in our environment, such as during the global pandemic. 

  • Breathing exercises and conscious muscle relaxation helps to reduce heart rate and relieve muscle tension. There are many guided meditations available to help you get started.

  • Confronting our fears or something that scares us may reduce our stress by imposing certainty on something that had previously been uncertain. Consciously problem solving an issue can achieve a similar effect. 

  • Becoming more physically active has physical health benefits that include the reduction of stress hormones, increase in energy levels, and may also help to increase a sense of control.

  • Being mindful of what you drink may also help reduce stress as alcohol may have short term euphoric effects, but it also has long term depressive and anxiety inducing ones. Caffeine stimulates areas of the brain that may already be overworked due to stress, contributing to burnout. Both caffeine and alcohol consumption can also negatively impact sleep and therefore reduce the critical rest that our bodies and brains need to recuperate during stressful times. 

Reference: Psycho-Logical, by the neuroscientist Dean Burnett.

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