Let's Explore: Stress management
Updated: Dec 6, 2019
A 2018 study found that 74% (!) of us are stressed. Are you in that 74%?
I’m going to ask you another question. Don’t skip ahead just yet, pause and answer it as best you can.
What actually IS stress?
Notice the answer you gave. Was it feelings and descriptions of your experience? It usually is when I ask groups or students this same question. When I started teaching stress management, I was really surprised to discover that often, people don’t really know what stress actually is!
In this month’s blog we’ll explore: -What stress is (physiologically speaking) -The physical stress response and it’s impact -Attitudes to stress -A look at chronic stress and -6 steps to start managing stress effectively
What is stress?
Stress as word has become a regular part of our vocabulary (and our culture!) used generally now as a broad term describing a state of tension.
But physiologically speaking, stress is the result of the brain and nervous system thinking we are in danger and preparing us to deal with it.
Let’s get into this a little deeper together so that we all know exactly what stress really is. If we understand it, we can have better awareness and are in a stronger position to manage it!
All our senses are constantly collecting and sending information to the brain for it to sort out and respond to. Sound waves, temperature, light protons, smells and tastes are all picked up by our sensory organs for analysis. The information travels along our peripheral nervous system (PNS) (made up of our nerves), along the spinal cord and up to the brain where it what to do with it. The spinal cord and the brain are called The central nervous system (CNS). This happens constantly without any particular effort or awareness on our part.
The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is further dived into two parts. The somatic and autonomic parts of the NS.
The somatic part of our nervous system accounts for the aspects we have control over. Deciding to lift your arm for example. The autonomic part is the aspect we have no conscious control of (Our body temperature, hormone release, digestion etc). (To help you remember: Think Automatic car needs no control from us to change gears)
The autonomic part is the bit we need to focus on when it comes to stress. This final part is sub divided once more. The ‘rest and digest’ mode, our relaxed state, is called the ‘Parasympathetic’ system. And the bit we are most interested in for the sake of understanding stress is the ‘sympathetic’ nervous system, the ‘fight or flight’ mode. The brain’s number one priority, is to keep us alive, so everything is run through the filter of ‘Is this a danger?’ And whilst the brain does its best, it’s only got so much data to go on (Your thoughts and feelings also contribute to this process) and sometimes, it gets it wrong.
When the brain (the amygdala and then hypothalamus specifically, for those that are interested) decides it’s under threat, it sends messages out via the autonomic nervous system (The part you can’t consciously control) to make physiological changes, preparing you to react as quickly as possible:
Hormones are released, adrenaline, cortisol
Heart rate increase (and bp)
Breathing rate increase
Body temp increase
Digestion slows, bladder relaxes and inhibited erections.
Immune system suppression
Vasal constriction to some areas of the body
Increased clotting factors
Increased muscle tension
In some circumstances loss of hearing and loss of peripheral vision can occur too.
We trigger the sympathetic nervous system more than you might be aware of. If you’re playing a sport you need energy or quick movements, sitting an important exam where you need to recall lots of information quickly for example or have sustained certain types of physical trauma, then having the sympathetic nervous system engaged is really useful!
The worrying attitudes about stress
It’s worth keeping in mind that brains were formed an approximate 7 million years ago and they’ve allowed us to be very clever (Perhaps too clever?) Our poor brains haven’t been able to keep up with the changes we’ve made to our environments and lifestyles. Think about the changes we’ve experienced in just the last 1000 years. Societal and technological evolution has been extremely rapid in that time and our brains are stimulated like never before!
With that in mind, it’s not really a surprise that stress is now common place. It’s got to the point where it seems like there must be something wrong with a person if they AREN’T stressed?! Are they not doing modern life properly?
Stress has become ACCEPTABLE. And that is dangerous.
Types of stress
There are two types of stress we’re going to look at; acute and chronic. Acute stress is short term and often really useful during any occasion where you need fast responses such as in sport or an interview for example.
Chronic stress is a prolonged state of tension that lasts days, months or even years!
Here are some of the possible results of chronic stress:
Decreased sexual functioning
Loss of appetite or increase
Weight gain or weight loss
Decreased immune function
High blood pressure
Destructive coping mechanisms (Drinking, smoking, drugs)
Menstrual cycle issues
Hair and skin problems
Loss of concentration
And stress can often be the gateway state to depression and anxiety. That’s a fun list isn’t it?
So why are we so willing to accept being stressed?
If you’ve read this far into the blog though, you’re probably looking for ways to address the situation, to be proactive and help yourself manage stress in a healthy way, so well done for not wanting to accept that list! Well done for saying ‘NO!’ to stress as a way of life. Well done for being proactive!
6 steps to start managing your stress
Step 1) Review your lifestyle This one requires a bit of self-enquiry, some honesty and possibly even some bravery (based on your answers and changes you may need to make as a result.)Here are 4 questions to get you started… How much are doing? One of the BIGGEST causes of stress is the amount we pile on ourselves. We are all suffering from overwhelm. The troubling thing is people often don’t even realise they’re doing ‘too much’ because this is becoming the considered ‘norm’. If you’re not sure, refer back to step one. Your body will let you know! How is your sleep? Inadequate sleep messes with our hormones and energy levels, reducing our normal coping abilities and increasing production of cortisol (One of the main hormones responsible for stress) If it’s not good, start taking steps to improve it. What are you eating, drinking and smoking? When stressed it’s easy to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. We usually latch onto things that quickly sooth and make us feel better, but in the long run, they’re not good for us. Smoking, drinking, over or under eating are the go-to options usually. (Or scrolling aimlessly through social media) Check in with what coping mechanisms you’re using currently and decide if you’re happy with them. How’s work? I think we all experience some work related stress at times but are you stressed more often than not? If you are, then it’s time to ask the hard question; is it worth it? Your health HAS to come first. People often say ‘well I need the money so I have to’. I get that, I really do but I also know from first-hand experience, your body will stop you working anyway if you ignore chronic stress. So make it on your terms.
Step 2) Build awareness Know what stress feels like for you. Is it chest tightness, or a racing mind, it is being snappy or feeling miserable? Identify how it impacts you so that you can get good at recognising it coming on as soon as possible. Then start to identify your triggers. We’re actually surprisingly different when it comes to what creates an experience of stress. For me, one of them is too much noise. I find crowds, large gatherings (noisy ones) and loud music stressful. One of my brothers on the other hand- that’s his idea of fun! So it’s different for all of us. You’ll probably find you can think of more than one trigger, which is completely normal. If you know your triggers, you can manage them.
Step 3) Self-care (I know I say it every month but…) Self-care is a SKILL and it’s one we can all keep getting better at. It’s a working balance that needs constant review. I’m talking self-care beyond the bubble baths and pamper sessions. Look at this wheel (By Olga Phoenix). Are you giving yourself enough time to nurture the 6 segments as they need to be?
Step 4) Eat that frog!
Goal setting is a powerful tool to harness but I am specifically advocating and recommending the ‘Eat that frog’ method by Brian Tracy. A lot of clients I work with suffer stress by overwhelm, that ‘to do’ list never seems to get reconciled, it only ever grows. Brian Tracy’s method of goal setting teaches you how to prioritise and prioritise well as well as time management and clever psychology tips.
Step 5) Grow your frontal cortex!!! Probably didn’t expect that but yup, grow your frontal cortex! This is the part of the brain that deals with emotional control, reasoning, pain resistance, willpower and focus. Growing this part of the brain is very helpful because it can override the amygdala (mentioned earlier). Stress actually shrinks the grey matter of the frontal cortex, which creates a rather negative cycle. Smaller frontal cortex= less ability to manage emotion and cope= more stress=small frontal cortex etc. So how can you grow this wonderful region of your brain? By using the methods Evolution Wellness specialises in! Meditation, mindfulness, Journaling and positive psychology techniques!
Step 6) Don’t have time for any of this and still stressed? Try binaural therapy. Binural therapy is really still in it's infancy in terms of possibilities and understanding. (I personally use a very targeted device developed in 2013) But it is based on very well-established psycho-neaurological principles with decades of research behind it! It is one of the quickest and most effective (non-medication) based options for settling a variety of emotional issues. Being into all things related to meditation, the brain and scientifically backed mental health management practices, of course I’m at the front of the queue with this! Imagine meditation on steroids for dealing with stress and anxiety, that’s what this is like. It’s incredibly effective. If you want more information, visit here.
One final thing before you go…
You’ve probably heard that slightly annoying antidote: “Just take a deep breath!” or “Breathe!” from people in response to stress and anxiety….well there is some science in this…
There are tiny receptors in the lower lobes of the lungs that help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (The rest and digest mode) so it can work. Now might be a good time to learn diaphragm breathing!
I hope this has been helpful and will help get you going with a new approach to managing stress. If you do want further and more in depth help, Evolution Wellness offers personalised stress management training so please feel free to get in touch.
Love and Light, Anna
© Evolution Wellness 2019
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