Stress is something that every person on this planet has experienced at some point in their lives. Whether momentarily fleeting or digging in for the long haul, it is an unavoidable part of life. Even the word itself (whether from the known associations with the feeling or because the sound of it clangs in your brain) brings a feeling of tightness under your skin and can instantly make your blood pressure rise.
But at what point does that stress become a problem and is stress the same for everyone?
The answers to those questions are fairly straightforward, but at the same time, they’re not. Stress is not the same for everyone which means that the point where it becomes problematic will be completely different for different people. Some fall apart at the first hint of an issue, while others take a lot more time before they bow to pressure.
What is stress?
Stress by its nature, isn’t implicitly bad. Its purpose was to help our ancestors survive and it did just that. It allowed the hunters to react appropriately when faced with danger and it works similarly today. While most of us don’t usually find ourselves in life or death situations, we can at times, need to think fast in the middle of chaos. This is when the stress hormones kick in. However, an excess of these hormones is where the problems start.
Cortisol – The stress hormone. When your stress levels rise, so does the level of cortisol in your body. In many situations this is completely necessary. It raises the amount of glucose in your body and helps your brain use it more effectively. It helps with tissue repair and diverts energy to the parts of the body that need it. But, in excess, it can cause weight gain, high blood pressure and sleep issues.
Adrenaline – We’ve all had an adrenaline rush before and like cortisol, it’s not inherently bad. It increases your heartbeat and your breathing helping you get more oxygen. It helps your muscles use all that extra glucose the cortisol is producing so you have more energy. It prepares your body for potential danger. But, in excess it can cause headaches, anxiety and a higher risk of a heart attack or even a stroke.
These hormones activate the fight, flight, freeze response, which is your body deciding whether to fight, run away or do neither and everybody will react differently. When you get stuck in it, is when stress takes hold.
Why do we get stressed?
The reasons for stress will vary from person to person but mostly seem to fall into the same categories, with money and finances being the biggest problem. Lack of sleep, health worries and family all follow pretty closely.
Work related stress was split into two categories; Work in General and My Workload, but it could be argued that they are actually the same thing which would take that total up to 41%, putting it higher than money and finances. That means that 41% of people who took this survey felt like work was causing them enough stress that they felt like it was having a negative impact. Other surveys report similar figures at 35%.
According to reports, work related stress did rise in the years 2020 – 2021, but that’s not wholly unsurprising. The pandemic created a whole new set of problems for people to deal with and it certainly wasn’t just the workplace where stress levels increased. Mental health in general suffered for most people. But are the figures accurate? Did stress levels rise or did people just feel more able to talk about it because everyone was dealing with the same problems?
Admitting to stress, in some workplaces and environments, could potentially be thought of as a weakness; an inability to withstand the pressures. But with everyone facing the same pressures, the struggle to cope becomes more legitimate and people are more likely to speak out, which is a fantastic thing. Reducing the potential for burnout is something that all employers should be aware of and be taking action over as burnout hurts the employer as much as the employee.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is described by Mental Health UK as: “a state of physical and emotional exhaustion”. It’s generally applied only to situations in the workplace, but I disagree with this. A stay at home parent can experience burnout just as easily as someone in a more traditional workplace, with even less opportunity to rectify the problem. Someone caring for a sick parent/child/family member/friend can experience burnout, but again, it’s not seen as being employed so can be overlooked.
Looking at this list, all of these things are horribly familiar to most of us, but have we ever attributed them to burnout or just thought we were a bit stressed? I feel most of them all the time, but I also have ME so I’m kind of always in a state of burnout. I just ignore it.
But that’s the problem. We all ignore it. Or we have done, until recently at least. With the spotlight having been firmly pointed at mental health lately, we’re finding that we’re less inclined to accept these feelings as just ‘a normal part of life’. People who found a better work/life balance working from home are reluctant to go back to the office and are voicing their concerns. Loudly. We should be listening.
What are the symptoms of stress?
There are many, many symptoms of stress and they can all affect people in different ways. It’s not textbook because everyone reacts to things in different ways. For example, when I get stressed I get headaches and sore muscles because I’m tense and I struggle to sleep. I have a friend whose stress manifests as digestive issues and another who knows the stress is getting too much because she gets a breakout on her face. There’s no one size fits all.
Having said that, there are certain symptoms that are generally universally accepted as being related to stress.
It’s not always a bad thing when you start to notice these symptoms, as long as you do something about it. The real problems happen when we ignore them.
What are the health implications of stress?
The health implications for excessive stress are numerous and can potentially have a significant negative impact on your life. If the symptoms are ignored they can develop from being a mild annoyance to a serious problem. That racing heart can cause palpitations and raise your blood pressure. If it’s constantly raised then eventually, it can cause long-term heart problems including a heart attack.
And that’s just the beginning. If your muscles are constantly tight from being stressed this can lead to injuries or overuse of pain medication. While most of us are used to not always getting enough sleep (it’s a fact of life), if it’s chronic then it can cause long term issues in your brain. When it comes to your sex drive, we’re not always in the mood and that’s fine, but chronic stress can lower testosterone in a man and affect the female menstrual cycle. This can cause problems within yourself but also within a relationship.
In the end, all of this excess stress can start weakening your immune system making you more prone to viruses and infections. Injuries and wounds take longer to heal and you’ll find that any virus you do get, hangs around for so long you feel like it should be paying rent!
So how do we combat these problems?
The simple answer is to remove the stressor from your life, but that’s not always possible. If you can, great! Problem solved! But for most of us, it’s simply unrealistic.
Talk to someone – My first suggestion would be to talk to someone. Whether that’s a friend, family member, boss or helpline, sometimes the act of talking about our problems releases a huge weight off our shoulders. You may have become so mired in your stress that you simply can’t see clearly anymore and need someone else to offer some perspective.
Breathing Exercises – If you’re able to get online (and if you’re reading this then you’re probably able to get online), there are loads of simple breathing exercises that you can find if you feel your heart starting to race or you’re getting overwhelmed.
A really simple exercise you can do is to breathe in slowly for 3 beats, then breathe out for 6 and repeat. If that’s too much try 2 and 4. As long as your out breath is longer than your in breath it will help to calm you down.
Meditation, Mindfulness and Yoga – I know, I know. It’s something you see all the time and you don’t want to hear about it anymore. But the fact is, they work. Part of it is the act of doing it, and part of it is taking the time out for yourself. If you’re not sure where to start, then take a look at some meditation apps and some beginners videos. And keep trying! If you don’t think it’s making a difference, ask yourself if you’re really giving it a proper go. If you are, that’s fine, try something else. If you’re not, try again.
Exercise – I would like to stress (no pun intended) that exercise is only an option if it’s safe for you to do so. Some people are unable to exercise due to health problems and that’s ok. I love exercise, but due to my ME, I have to be very careful what I do and how much.
For those who can, physical activity is a great way to help relieve stress. Whether you like to lose yourself on a run or a walk, go to the gym and lift weights or just dance around the room to 90’s pop (possibly just me…..), whatever you do will have a benefit.
Talk to your GP – If you’re feeling completely overwhelmed and other things aren’t working, try talking to your GP. They can take a look to make sure that nothing else is causing an issue and if necessary, potentially refer you to a professional for counselling or therapy. There is no shame or weakness in that. Knowing you’re not ok and asking for help makes you strong. Neither is there any shame in taking medication which your doctor may also prescribe. If it’s going to help your health in the long run, then it’s necessary.
Stress is a part of life. But it doesn’t have to take over your life.