Master good habits to reduce stress and anxiety for a better sense of peace and mental clarity.
What is stress?
Image source: Nature neuroscience.
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
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.
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:
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.
Take the resilience check.
Find additional support.