There’s Something About Stress: What is it?
There’s something about stress
As a psychologist and stress management coach, the three most commonly asked questions I get are:
- What is stress?
- How can I tell I’m stressed?
- What can I do about it?
Over the next few weeks I will address each topic in turn, starting with…
What is Stress?
Now we probably all know what stress feels like, but it’s not easy to pin down exactly what stress means. We use the term ‘stress’ to describe a variety of pressured situations from minor situations such as a traffic jam, to the more traumatic situation like the death of a loved one. When we say things like “this is stressful” or “I’m stressed”, what we are generally referring to are:
- Situations or events that put pressure on us– for example, times where a deadline is approaching fast and we haven’t completed the relevant tasks, or events where we feel we don’t have much control over what happens to us.
- Our reaction to being placed under pressure– the feeling of being overwhelmed when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with. For example, juggling a new job role and a child starting ‘big’ school.
The Body’s Response to Stress
Adrenaline particularly causes the heart to pound faster, increased breathing, and releases a boost of energy, enabling us to focus our attention so we can quickly respond to the situation, such as reacting swiftly to a person running in front of our car by slamming on the brakes. The process is known as the ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Fight – Flight – Freeze
The Flight mode is activated when rather than choosing to fight, we avoid the stressors (the things that causes us to stress), by removing ourselves from the situation instead of tackling it. In extreme situations, this ‘flight’ survival instinct can save our lives should we find ourselves in dangerous surroundings (think-escaped-lion-coming after-you-situation). However, in everyday life, this natural instinct can lead a stressful situation escalating, thereby increasing our stress levels when we realise that the stressor isn’t going away by itself and we really do need to face up to it.
The Freeze mode is less known but important to take note of. For some people, becoming stressed sets the stage for ‘dysregulation’. This is where the energy mobilised by perceived threat gets ‘locked’ into the nervous system and we ‘freeze’ thus rending us immobile. This response sometimes reveals itself when we breathe. Holding our breath and shallow breathing are both forms of the freeze mode. So that occasional deep sigh we make is really the nervous system catching up on its oxygen intake. In extreme life-threatening situations, we may even lose consciousness, thus enabling us to survive high levels of physical pain (think-escaped-lion-coming-after-you-situation again)!
The next blog post on this topic will look at ways stress manifests in our daily lives, before I discuss what can be done about it.
After experiencing three separate bereavements in the family, I learnt how to overcome the lasting effects of my low moods and anxieties, and to get back into the world! I learnt that all the resilience I need to survive is already in me, and that it is my responsibility to make myself happy.