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Thursday, 23 March 2017

What is Stress and How Can You Deal With It?

About Stress

Stress is not the same as pressure or challenge – it's when our mechanisms to cope with a situation are exceeded.  It's perfectly possible to have pressure or challenge and do well out of it.  If you've got an achievable deadline, your adrenaline will flow and you may be energised to do better as a result.  However, expressions such as “a healthy degree of stress is good” should be challenged, and I feel they are actually a sloppy use of language where it would be better to use a different form of words.  To illustrate this: we wouldn't say that a bridge under stress is a good thing, because this would suggest that it had been put under the pressure of more traffic than it was designed to handle, which would be a dangerous thing, possibly leading to disaster.  To continue this analogy, we can think of lorries on the bridge as heavy stressors (bullying, relationship issues, bereavement, excessive workload over a long period) and cars as smaller ones (traffic jams, someone being rude or snappy with us, rain on a day when you relied on sunshine).  The bridge can only manage to hold so much weight before it starts to wobble and then collapse.  So it is with people.  Stress is an abnormal not a normal load – it is damaging for a bridge; for humans it's bad for the body, mind and soul.  Stress is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign that you have been strong for too long – in the example of the bridge, engineers should have spotted that the bridge was close to its capacity for strain and acted in a appropriate manner; in your life, either yourself or others could and should have changed something before it got this far.

Stress can build up over a period of time in a gradual way until we find we reach overload, or one or two really bad events in close succession can immediately take us into a feeling of overload.  

A mixture of personal and background stress can be very potent adding to personal stressors, we live in what might easily be described as the Age of Anxiety.  Modern life has many troubles, particularly perhaps for younger people who may come to see current issues stretching out indefinitely into the future.  It seems impossible to switch on our televisions without hearing about some huge uncertainty, disaster or problem. The last ten years seem to have had an increasing amount of troublesome issues: banking crashes, political upheaval and polarised opinion, famine, terrorism, global warming and extreme weather, species extinction, the uncertainties of Brexit etc.  Without a doubt, workplaces have become more difficult, with efficiency pressures in these financially limited times encouraging managers to adopt increasingly task-orientated methods rather than also considering (as past management styles seemed to do) the needs of the team and the individual. Apparently we live in the most held down wages for many decades, housing is ridiculously expensive, and many companies seem to want their staff to do more in less time whilst demanding their loyalty and giving very little of that back in return.  In an employer's market, the psychological welfare of staff is a low priority –company literature may state it as a priority but it is usually obvious that this is just window dressing to lull a false sense of security and to look impressive to outsiders or would be employees.  With all this, it's no wonder the world feels like a stressful place before we even add our own stuff into the mix. 

You may be thinking that there are people who are more stressed (or less stressed) than you.  This is almost certainly true, but it gets us nowhere. Differences in stress are not just about how different people are able to deal with the common things they are facing, but also about how one person's ability to deal with stress can differ wildly at different times because of other factors recent events, personal relationships, environment, health and energy levels. It's also true that many people also add to their own stressors by being overly perfectionist or by fearing failure or success, but that is rarely the only contributing factor.

Reactions to Stress
Some common reactions can be:
• Sweating
• Tight chest
• Increased pulse
• Physical tension
• Tummy troubles
• Sleep issues
• Headaches
• Irritability
• Anger
• Lack of libido
• Skin conditions
• Social withdrawal

These issues can affect different people with different intensities and there's also the phenomenon of being stressed about being stressed, so that the stress feeds on itself and spirals upwards.

What can we do about stress?

When you are stressed it's important to choose to do things.  You may well not feel like doing anything much at all, but you should do things anyway, because it's only by moving in a  different direction that you can change things for the better.  If there are things you enjoy doing but have stopped due to stress then you should probably try to do them again. There are many ways of coping with stress, and not all of them will be relevant or a good choice for everyone.  Nonetheless, some of the ideas below may help and some of them may be things you've done but given up on or found hard in stressful times:

Use exercise to relieve tension –but don't overdo it to start with
Learn your triggers and avoid them – for instance, if certain people or situations set you off, avoid them when it's reasonable to do so
Reframe the situation (if that is possible) – could there be  opportunity as well as difficulty ahead?
Concentrate on positive things more than negative ones
Consider the bigger picture – which might be wholly different from the close-focus one
Try to laugh – watching a favourite comedy can be great for relieving tension
Get more sleep  – if this is difficult try to take naps when possible
Have more physical intimacy, which is a great stress reliever (and sleep inducer)
Eat and drink more wisely – drink alcohol sparingly, avoid too much caffeine
Take time out
Treat yourself
Practice breathing slowly
Talk to someone you trust about what's troubling you
Ask for a long hug from someone who will be happy to oblige
Look at images of a favourite place or person
Listen to soothing music
Practise mindfulness – being in the moment no matter what you are doing
Find more time for a hobby or start one you've always wanted to
Work smarter not harder
Learn to say "no" when appropriate
Ask for help
Use a positive mantra to repeat in your head when entering a stressful situation
for instance, "I will be okay"
Do something repetitive – for instance, painting a fence can be very therapeutic if you are stressed
Accept those things that you can't change and try to change those that you can change
Do something artistic or creative to release a different type of energy – paint, write a poem, sing
Lower your expectations of yourself and others – you are probably expecting an unreasonable amount
Challenge any tendency you have to always think negatively.  Spot it and say to yourself, "there I go again, imagining disaster, when it will probably be difficult but fine."

Try to start becoming aware of when you get stressed. Notice your bodily reactions as you get stressed and allow them rather than struggle with them – try saying, for instance, "I am feeling stressed which is to be accepted in the circumstances.  I can manage this."  Be aware of how you are reacting can have a lot of power in defusing the stress as awareness always brings some measure of control.

Going to Counselling

Counselling  can be a good way to investigate and discover the causes of your stress.  By talking things through,  you can understand yourself better and start to deal with situations better as well.  A neutral, trained listener can help you unburden problems and facilitate change to something better – and you can look at options for coping with current and future situations and change and growth.

David is a fully qualified, BACP accredited and registered Person Centred and Existential Counsellor.  If you wish to talk about a bereavement, you can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

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