STRESS - What is it and how can we manage it?

by Davina Elsen MBACP, AAMET

Feeling stressed is something we have all experienced. Though a small amount of stress can be beneficial and get us moving, too much can lead to health problems and interfere with our well being and our relationships with family, friends and work colleagues. We can experience stress as feeling anxious, overwhelmed, pressurized, irritable and panicky. It can also produce physical effects such as headaches, stomach problems, skin eruptions and high blood pressure among others. What causes this?

Feeling stressed is about how we perceive a situation. When we think the demands being placed on us exceed our ability to cope, we can perceive this as stress and activate our natural stress response - what we all know as the fight/flight response, which was designed to help us get out of life threatening situations. Our brain sends messages to our adrenal glands which flood our bodies with the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Our blood pressure goes up, fats and sugars are released from the tissues to mobilize muscle activity, and our body is ready to fight or flee. 

There is another response which is less well known. The freeze response - like a rabbit in the headlights of a car. This happens when it is not possible to fight or run away and there is no hope in the situation. We swallow back down feelings and emotions, our muscles are primed ready for action, but we cannot move, we are paralyzed, so we go stiff, creating muscular tension. We are unable to discharge the effects of the stress in our bodies. This response has become far more common in our present day lives where the fight/flight response may not be appropriate.

If a parent, teacher or boss is behaving in a way that you perceive as threatening, this same physical response happens in your body, but it is likely you are unable to fight or run away, so you freeze instead and start a pattern of tension and holding back. Eventually, we lose our natural innate ability to listen to our body's needs and to judge effectively. 

External events are not the only triggers of the stress response. An event in the present (which may not actually be dangerous for you) can trigger a memory of a past event which was perceived as threatening to your survival at the time (like losing your mother in the supermarket when you were four years old) and this will automatically activate the stress response.

Chronic stress inevitably leads to health problems. Overworked adrenal glands become depleted and this raises prolactin levels, increasing the body's sensitivity to pain and predisposing you to chronic fatigue. Cortisol levels are supposed to drop at night, allowing your body to relax and recharge. Too high levels in your system create a second wind at bedtime and prevent this from happening. They suppress the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which plays an important part in the regulation of learning, mood and sleep. This is why we eventually end up feeling low and exhausted. High cortisol levels also deactivate the body's natural self repair mechanisms, lowering your immune system. You may have noticed you often catch a cold when you are feeling particularly overloaded. 

So what can we do about this? Leading a healthy life style can help us deal with stress. A good diet, plenty of exercise, loving and supportive relationships and maybe a weekly session of yoga or meditation are all proven to help. But life doesn't always run this smoothly. For most of us, there will be moments when it all feels too much and we just can't cope. 

Moving house, getting divorced, losing a loved one, or giving birth are some of the life events which are known to be stressful. At these times, it can be really helpful to see a counsellor who can support you to find clarity, see things from a different perspective, and find more effective ways of dealing with your own particular situation. Just having the space of one hour a week to talk with a non-judgmental, empathic person can be all that is required. At other times, more may be needed.

Relaxation, guided visualisation, mindfulness exercises and EFT (emotional freedom technique) are some of the useful tools a counsellor can share with you to help you deal with stress. EFT, or tapping, which combines the concepts of acupuncture (without the needles!) with psychology, is easy to learn and is known to be particularly helpful in dealing with stress. It calms the stress response by interrupting the messages being sent from the amygdala in the limbic or mid brain (the source of emotions and long-term memory) to the adrenal glands. 

As we gain awareness and learn to let go of some of the tension which comes with stress, our energy starts to flow and we can feel more joy and a greater sense of well being. Those stressful feelings no longer affect us in quite the same way and we can take charge of our lives again.