I am in no way a hard man but do prefer to internalise issues and deal with them and try not to bother anyone or look foolish if it becomes a non issue. When I once had a serious medical issue involving my sight I thought ‘ nah, I’ll be right” until my wife told me what the symptoms were and unless I want to go blind to get to the MO right there and then. So no surprise when I came back from an intense deployment with some kinetic pressures, I did the same.
I took to the hills 3 days after returning home hunting and walking, leaving my confused wife at home. I scared her with verbal outbursts about the small things. I made unachievable lists of things to complete around the house in a weekend. I pushed away my civvi mates because they didn’t get it and escaped the day to day with random trips around the country.…. I watched hours of combat footage on youtube.
Only after hindsight an reflection can I see that what I was trying to do was put myself back in situations where I was functioning again in the ‘combat’ environment. Putting out personal challenges and achievements to try for those same endorphins I had on deployment, gaining the same freedom and simplicity that a deployment can offer that normal life restricts or makes safe. I had an itch that I couldn’t stop scratching, I wanted to be back with my team where everyday felt like it meant something, not stuck far removed from what I thought was reality.
What I failed to realise was that this normal home life was reality too. Looking back now I can see that my outbursts and erratic behaviour were not normal, and these caused heartache and depression for my wife as I worked through dealing with it by myself. It was only when coming to a pinnacle of emotion did it dawn that there was an issue. Unfortunately this came too late and took 4-5 years, by which my relationship has suffered significantly. It was only made easier by seeing a NZDF Padre that we (my wife and I) could both register each other’s emotions and for me to see that I was just being a D!ck.
Part of the reason I took so long to get help was that I didn’t want to be branded or ‘Labelled’ and or waste peoples time on what I thought was a private matter. Knowing what I know now I would realise earlier that my experiences on deployment had had an impact and my reactions were not uncommon given these experiences. I learned that sometimes I can’t go it alone, that trying to do so has an impact on me and those around me, and that getting help (in my case from the padre) can help find a way through.
Personally I wish I’d learned this earlier. I thought I was tough enough to nut it out; it took me a while to realise I wasn’t, and then to get myself sorted again. I know there are others out there who are not going ok, not knowing what’s happening or believing that there’s nothing they can do to sort it. It’s hard to ask for help, we do want to try and go it alone, but sometimes we need to get help. Its not a ‘poor me’ approach. We owe it to ourselves and those around us.
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What is stress?
Stress is the body’s natural response to emotional, mental, or physical pressure. The pressure or trigger for the response can be anything like public speaking, sitting a test, or dealing with work pressures. A stress response can start following a large event like a car accident, or by a build-up of smaller events over time (like losing your keys, then your wallet, then your car). This page focusses on everyday stress. The stress response from a traumatic event often requires additional ways to support yourself. For information on that, have a look at our resource on dealing with critical incident stress and trauma.
The stress response is a set of physiological changes that occur in your body when the brain perceives that there is some sort of threat or danger, or that your coping skills are being stretched. When this happens your brain tells your body to switch on this stress response, which some people also call the “flight or fight” response. The flight or fight response is the body’s way of trying to ensure you survive when it thinks you’re in danger.
The stress response is designed to protect you, and it is useful - up to a point - when we need a physical response, or when we need to focus.
The problems occur when stress becomes ongoing and triggers a continued activation of our nervous system over time. This continued triggering of physiological responses in the body, such as the release of cortisone, hormones, muscles tension and changes to the blood flow to the brain and other organs to help us perform, but can lead to a range of not so good impacts on our physical health, emotions, ways of thinking, and how we behave if it persists for too long.
The stressed brain also has other negative features, while good in some instances, they can create problems in others. For example, the ability to focus, can result in over-focusing on one thing to the exclusion of other important things. In addition, the stress response can gear our brain towards scanning for threat (this can feel like heightened alertness), but cause us to miss the positive opportunities or good things in our environment, leading to a more pessimistic outlook.
Despite these potential pitfalls, we need to recognise that stress is normal and natural. The bad reputation that stress has gained, comes in part from the wider societal culture which tries to sell us the idea that we should be happy and successful all the time. It turns out that stress is only bad for your health if you think it is.
Researcher Dr Kelly McGongal has found that people with higher levels of stress will die (on average) sooner that people with lower levels of stress but, only if they believed that stress was bad for them. In a large study conducted in America, researchers found that people who had higher levels of stress, but didn’t view stress as harmful had no negative effects on their life expectancy. Dr McGonigal's research suggests that how we think about stress is important and can affect everything from the health of your heart to your general happiness.
How to make stress your friend | Kelly McDonigal
I have a confession to make.
But first, I want you to make a little confession to me.
In the past year, I want you to just raise your hand
if you've experienced relatively little stress.
How about a moderate amount of stress?
Who has experienced a lot of stress?
Yeah. Me too.
But that is not my confession.
My confession is this:
I am a health psychologist,
and my mission is to help people be happier and healthier.
But I fear that something I've been teaching
for the last 10 years is doing more harm than good,
and it has to do with stress.
For years I've been telling people, stress makes you sick.
It increases the risk of everything from the common cold
to cardiovascular disease.
Basically, I've turned stress into the enemy.
But I have changed my mind about stress,
and today, I want to change yours.
Let me start with the study that made me rethink
my whole approach to stress.
This study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years,
and they started by asking people,
"How much stress have you experienced in the last year?"
They also asked,
"Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?"
And then they used public death records to find out who died.
Some bad news first.
People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year
had a 43 percent increased risk of dying.
But that was only true for the people
who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.
People who experienced a lot of stress
but did not view stress as harmful
were no more likely to die.
In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying
of anyone in the study,
including people who had relatively little stress.
Now the researchers estimated that over the eight years
they were tracking deaths,
182,000 Americans died prematurely,
not from stress,
but from the belief that stress is bad for you.
That is over 20,000 deaths a year.
Now, if that estimate is correct,
that would make believing stress is bad for you
the 15th largest cause of death in the United States last year,
killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide.
You can see why this study freaked me out.
Here I've been spending so much energy telling people
stress is bad for your health.
So this study got me wondering:
Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier?
And here the science says yes.
When you change your mind about stress,
you can change your body's response to stress.
Now to explain how this works,
I want you all to pretend that you are participants
in a study designed to stress you out.
It's called the social stress test.
You come into the laboratory,
and you're told you have to give
a five-minute impromptu speech on your personal weaknesses
to a panel of expert evaluators sitting right in front of you,
and to make sure you feel the pressure,
there are bright lights and a camera in your face,
kind of like this.
And the evaluators have been trained
to give you discouraging, non-verbal feedback,
Now that you're sufficiently demoralized,
time for part two: a math test.
And unbeknownst to you,
the experimenter has been trained to harass you during it.
Now we're going to all do this together.
It's going to be fun.
I want you all to count backwards from 996
in increments of seven.
You're going to do this out loud,
as fast as you can,
starting with 996.
Go faster. Faster please.
You're going too slow.
Stop. Stop, stop, stop.
That guy made a mistake.
We are going to have to start all over again.
You're not very good at this, are you?
Okay, so you get the idea.
If you were actually in this study,
you'd probably be a little stressed out.
Your heart might be pounding,
you might be breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat.
And normally, we interpret these physical changes as anxiety
or signs that we aren't coping very well with the pressure.
But what if you viewed them instead
as signs that your body was energized,
was preparing you to meet this challenge?
Now that is exactly what participants were told
in a study conducted at Harvard University.
Before they went through the social stress test,
they were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful.
That pounding heart is preparing you for action.
If you're breathing faster, it's no problem.
It's getting more oxygen to your brain.
And participants who learned to view the stress response
as helpful for their performance,
well, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident,
but the most fascinating finding to me
was how their physical stress response changed.
Now, in a typical stress response,
your heart rate goes up,
and your blood vessels constrict like this.
And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress
is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease.
It's not really healthy to be in this state all the time.
But in the study,
when participants viewed their stress response as helpful,
their blood vessels stayed relaxed like this.
Their heart was still pounding,
but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile.
It actually looks a lot like what happens
in moments of joy and courage.
Over a lifetime of stressful experiences,
this one biological change
could be the difference
between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50
and living well into your 90s.
And this is really what the new science of stress reveals,
that how you think about stress matters.
So my goal as a health psychologist has changed.
I no longer want to get rid of your stress.
I want to make you better at stress.
And we just did a little intervention.
If you raised your hand and said
you'd had a lot of stress in the last year,
we could have saved your life,
because hopefully the next time your heart is pounding from stress,
you're going to remember this talk
and you're going to think to yourself,
this is my body helping me rise to this challenge.
And when you view stress in that way,
your body believes you,
and your stress response becomes healthier.
Now I said I have over a decade of demonizing stress
to redeem myself from,
so we are going to do one more intervention.
I want to tell you
about one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the stress response,
and the idea is this:
Stress makes you social.
To understand this side of stress,
we need to talk about a hormone, oxytocin,
and I know oxytocin has already gotten as much hype as a hormone can get.
It even has its own cute nickname, the cuddle hormone,
because it's released when you hug someone.
But this is a very small part of what oxytocin is involved in.
Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone.
It fine-tunes your brain's social instincts.
It primes you to do things
that strengthen close relationships.
Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family.
It enhances your empathy.
It even makes you more willing to help and support
the people you care about.
Some people have even suggested we should snort oxytocin...
to become more compassionate and caring.
But here's what most people don't understand about oxytocin.
It's a stress hormone.
Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out
as part of the stress response.
It's as much a part of your stress response
as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound.
And when oxytocin is released in the stress response,
it is motivating you to seek support.
Your biological stress response
is nudging you to tell someone how you feel,
instead of bottling it up.
Your stress response wants to make sure you notice
when someone else in your life is struggling
so that you can support each other.
When life is difficult,
your stress response wants you to be surrounded
by people who care about you.
Okay, so how is knowing this side of stress going to make you healthier?
Well, oxytocin doesn't only act on your brain.
It also acts on your body,
and one of its main roles in your body
is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress.
It's a natural anti-inflammatory.
It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress.
But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart.
Your heart has receptors for this hormone,
and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate
and heal from any stress-induced damage.
This stress hormone strengthens your heart.
And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits
of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support.
So when you reach out to others under stress,
either to seek support or to help someone else,
you release more of this hormone,
your stress response becomes healthier,
and you actually recover faster from stress.
I find this amazing,
that your stress response has a built-in mechanism
for stress resilience,
and that mechanism is human connection.
I want to finish by telling you about one more study.
And listen up, because this study could also save a life.
This study tracked about 1,000 adults in the United States,
and they ranged in age from 34 to 93,
and they started the study by asking,
"How much stress have you experienced in the last year?"
They also asked,
"How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbors,
people in your community?"
And then they used public records for the next five years
to find out who died.
Okay, so the bad news first:
For every major stressful life experience,
like financial difficulties or family crisis,
that increased the risk of dying by 30 percent.
But -- and I hope you are expecting a "but" by now --
but that wasn't true for everyone.
People who spent time caring for others
showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying.
Caring created resilience.
And so we see once again
that the harmful effects of stress on your health
are not inevitable.
How you think and how you act
can transform your experience of stress.
When you choose to view your stress response as helpful,
you create the biology of courage.
And when you choose to connect with others under stress,
you can create resilience.
Now I wouldn't necessarily ask for more stressful experiences in my life,
but this science has given me a whole new appreciation for stress.
Stress gives us access to our hearts.
The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning
in connecting with others,
and yes, your pounding physical heart,
working so hard to give you strength and energy.
And when you choose to view stress in this way,
you're not just getting better at stress,
you're actually making a pretty profound statement.
You're saying that you can trust yourself to handle life's challenges.
And you're remembering that you don't have to face them alone.
Chris Anderson: This is kind of amazing, what you're telling us.
It seems amazing to me that a belief about stress
can make so much difference to someone's life expectancy.
How would that extend to advice,
like, if someone is making a lifestyle choice
between, say, a stressful job and a non-stressful job,
does it matter which way they go?
It's equally wise to go for the stressful job
so long as you believe that you can handle it, in some sense?
KM: Yeah, and one thing we know for certain
is that chasing meaning is better for your health
than trying to avoid discomfort.
And so I would say that's really the best way to make decisions,
is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life
and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.
CA: Thank you so much, Kelly. It's pretty cool.
With that in mind, when we talk about stress we need to move away from the idea that we need ‘stress-free lives’. For starters that is pretty much impossible. I can’t even think of a realistic scenario where life is stress free. If we have people in our lives—children, partners, mothers, fathers, drunken uncles, grumpy aunts, aging parents, bosses, colleagues—then we are likely to have relationship challenges that cause stress. So if we can’t get rid of stress, then we need to get good at stress. We need to get to understood it so it doesn’t wear us down, but helps us grow and thrive.
Being in a ‘state of stress’ uses a great deal of energy. Over time we’ll start to feel the effects of the stress response as we come off the ‘high’ that helped us respond initially to whatever challenge triggered it. This is the rebound to the extra efforts that have been made during the ‘crisis’. The same effects can occur if the trigger is not dramatic, but a series of smaller problems that go on for a long time. If it is not possible to unwind and relax and recharge between the things triggering our stress response, we may start to feel like we are not coping entirely well with what life is sending our way.
What are some indications of the downside of stress?
Stress can manifest in our bodies and minds in different ways. You may relate to some of the things on the list below. It is a long list, and to be fair some of this can be indications of stress, but they can also be indications of other things like an undiagnosed health issue, or psychological disorder like anxiety. The key to looking through the list below is to start to get in touch with what your body is up to. Where are your aches and pains? How well have you slept each night over the last few weeks, do you notice anything different? Having good self-awareness of not only your thoughts and feelings, but also how your body feels in an important part of making a move towards positive change.
Can’t feel happiness enjoyment or affection for loved ones.
Moody and gloomy.
Feeling sad and hopeless as though the emergency will never end.
Changed relationships with those close to you.
Don’t want to be with family or friends or always need them around.
Have to talk about the emergency all the time.
Feel others don’t understand or don’t seem to care.
There are many effective methods to start getting great at dealing with stress, but first it is worth noting that making changes when you have been living in a state of overwhelm for some time can be hard. If stress has been ongoing, a pattern of stress may form. As a result, stress reactions may cause other problems and these problems cause more stress. For example, if challenges at work are leaving you lying awake thinking for too long, then this starts to affect your sleep. If your sleep is bad you end up tired and make mistakes. These mistakes then cause more stress, which further reduces the quality of your sleep. You can get worried about your lack of sleep and you can worry about your performance. It becomes a cycle. This has been called the stress cycle - when stress becomes an ongoing part of your life. If you allow yourself to develop habits that reinforce your stress-related issues this can be difficult to change by yourself - especially if you are tired and low on energy.
Getting over stress means breaking the stress cycle. To do this we first need to get a sense of are you ready to make a change. There are three questions you can ask yourself before you make any changes:
People may often not even realise when things are derailing for them. You may be so focused on solving the next problem that you haven’t noticed that you have slept poorly for four consecutive nights and it’s been two weeks since you hit the gym. Others will often notice it first, but if you are reading this now it’s worth having a look at the list above and if you are ticking a lot of items, it may be that you need to acknowledge that something is going on for you.
If you get to the point where you are thinking ‘yep, something is not quite right for me’, take time to think about how your stress patterns play out. Are they relationship patterns, where poor communication leads you to fall out with friends, colleagues, or your partner, which then leads you to withdraw and makes you more isolated? Are there physical patterns where working long hours leads you to skip the gym and snack on junk food, which then leads you to stress about your weight? What are the patterns that get you upset? Knowing what your cycle is, is a step towards interrupting it.
The first step is to notice, the second is to understand and the third step is to decide. You have to make a decision that you are going to do something different. Simply making the decision that enough is enough is not as easy as it sounds. If you have been aware of your patterns for a while but have done nothing, it might be because they feel like they are partly useful to you. For example, working hard with no breaks for exercise and eating might be driven by your need to please your boss. Isolating yourself from your loved ones or friends might be serving the need to protect yourself from rejection. If you need help making the decision it might be worth reaching out to a coach or counsellor to get yourself in the right headspace to move forward.
Once you have done some good reflecting on where you are in and what is going on for you, and whether you are ready for something different, then you need to take some action! Make a plan for how you will make small changes in your life for the better.
There are a range of tools and strategies you can use to reduce and manage the level of stress in your life. These include making practical changes in your life to reduce stress, tips to manage periods when you feel stressed, and changing the way you think about stress.