Stress – it seems that it lurks in almost every aspect of life these days. But what do we really mean by stress? Is it always a bad thing? What makes it bad? What are the facts about stress?
This is the approach that I use in my stress workshops at a local NHS hospital trust. Let’s begin with an over-arching definition: stress is the pressure that you expose yourself to. Actually, we are often more concerned with how we each respond to stress; your physical and emotional reactions, or stress responses. In physics we speak of the strain on the system when it is stressed. So you could argue that we should talk about the strain we experience when under stress.
Consequently, when we talk of “stress levels”, we should take care whether we mean the person’s stress responses, or the levels of pressure they are facing.
Of course, a little bit of pressure can be productive, can’t it? It can give you motivation, and help you to perform better at something. However, too much pressure or prolonged pressure can lead to stress, which is unhealthy for the mind and body.
Everyone reacts differently to stress, don’t they? And some have a higher threshold than others; they can bear more strain before they experience some stress response. This idea that individuals have unique biological, psychological and social sensitivities is the core of the “stress vulnerability model” proposed by Zubin and Spring (1977). When it gets too intense, or too prolonged, the resulting stress response can be physical, mental and emotional symptoms.
The variety of possible symptoms is wider than you might have imagined (see the table below), both physical and emotional. Over time, these culminate in the majority of cases of anxiety and depression, the most common mental health problems in the UK(and mental health problems are the most common health problems in the UK). Research by mental health charities suggests that a quarter of the population will have a mental health problem at some point in their lives.
How does stress happen? A model of stress
When faced with a situation that makes you stressed, your body releases chemicals, including cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These invoke the ‘fight or flight’ feelings that help us to deal with the situation. However, when you’re in a situation that prevents you from fighting or escaping, such as being on an overcrowded train, the chemicals are not used and their effects are felt by the body.
The stress vulnerability model tells us that everyone is different, and we each perceive situations differently (sensitivity) and have our own physical and emotional reactions (personal responses) to a situation.
A build-up of adrenaline and noradrenaline increases blood pressure, heart rate, and the amount that you sweat. Cortisol prevents your immune system from functioning properly, as well as releasing fat and sugar into your blood stream. The real trouble starts if you keep finding (putting?) yourself back in such stressful situations over and over, or if they get more intense.
That’s when mental, behavioural and physical symptoms can develop.
*Source: Prof Greg Wilkinson, Understanding Stress. Family Doctor Series. The BMA & Family Doctor Publications.
Reduce any one of these, and you impact on your stress response. Most of us want to change the situation in some way; such as how certain people treat us, or trying circumstances such as the bad traffic everyday on the way to work, or difficult clients or customers. Such external factors are hard to influence (short of direct avoidance).
The second factor is about your individual emotional and physical responses. See the table below, for examples. You might learn to reduce these by any of a number of methods, such as taking a break, going for a short walk, getting more exercise, learning to meditate, eating more healthily, learning time management or project management etc. There is plenty of this kind of advice around (the little Understanding Stress book I mentioned above is quite good, actually).
However, the third factor is usually overlooked, and is about your sensitivities to situations. For example, if you get upset if people shout, or you can’t easily say no, or don’t like (and therefore avoid) conflict, or have a need to please others (including the boss), then you are primed for more stress. This is because the world will be the way it is, whether you like it or not, and you will suffer if you can’t assertively make your way through it and get what you want and let things go that are really about other people’s issues.
Here’s the really interesting thing; most people don’t realise that you can modify these sensitivities and bring them back into balance. Do that, and what must happen to your stress response? That’s right, it drops away dramatically. And that’s the kind of mind work that a good brief therapist can achieve in a matter of a few hours work with you.