What makes you stressed?
Whether it is public speaking, taking a test or telling your partner they look great in those jeans, we often hear that stress is 100% bad for you, and that can be stressful in itself.
Let’s change your relationship with stress so that you don’t have to feel stressed about being stressed!
Are you scared of the S-word?
Stress gets a bad rap, as it mainly comes up when somebody suffers from the symptoms of chronic stress that haven’t been appropriately managed.
They will start to experience symptoms like:
- Muscle tension
- Faster heartbeats
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Constantly worrying
- Having difficulty concentrating
This can even lead to behavioural changes, such as changes in their mood as they become more irritable and snappy. Lifestyle changes may occur, such as detrimental differences in their eating and sleeping patterns.
All of this can lead to destructive coping mechanisms such as excessive drinking, smoking, gambling and drug use.
Is cortisol to blame?
Cortisol has to bear much of the blame as it is commonly known as “the stress hormone”.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Cortisol also has plenty of valuable and healthy functions, such as:
- Regulating your blood pressure
- Boosting your immune
- Managing inflammation
Cortisol only starts to cause the negative issues it is more popularly known for after the levels of this naturally occurring hormone have remained highly elevated for too long.
Let’s look at why cortisol and stress can actually be beneficial when appropriately managed and how you can use it to give you an advantage.
Is this heaven? Or just social media?
If your life goal is to lie on a beach without a worry in the world, then we have some bad news for you.
The graph below shows the famous Yerkes-Dodson Law bell curve. It describes the relationship between stress and performance.
Having a stress-free frolic through a field of sunflowers might look great on social media, but in reality, not having enough stress in an activity leads to boredom. This is what we see on the left side of the curve.
Think about a time when you achieved something incredible or went through an experience where you had tremendous personal growth - it most probably involved overcoming some kind of challenge.
And we’re willing to bet it was perhaps a bit stressful, right?
When you harness stress for good, it can improve your motivation and focus, fueling you to overcome any struggle.
So is the secret to life to increase stress as much as possible?
Finding a balance between boredom and meltdown
On the other hand, too much stress can cause your immune system to go haywire, preventing you from sleeping, and sending your anxiety levels soaring - all factors that increase the risk of dementia.
For example, people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe manifestation of stress after a distressing event, seem to have nearly twice the risk of dementia.
PTSD can wreak havoc on everyday life, with the most common symptom being re-experiencing the distressing event.
This often happens in the form of:
- Stressful images
- Unpleasant physical manifestations of pain, sweating and feeling ill.
PTSD is chronic stress in one of its most severe forms and requires medical attention.
The rest of this article will focus on practical strategies to deal with more common, everyday forms of stress.
Managing your stress
It may be tempting to think that the easy way out is to medicate, but there are actually a ton of easy, free and healthy ways to reduce your stress levels naturally.
Natural ways of reducing stress include:
- Exercising and being more physically active
- Being more involved in your community
- Prioritising time with friends and family
For another seven stress busters, have a look at this NHS resource.
Even if you’re a meteorologist and your job is full of high pressure (ha!), we’re going to take you through three easy steps to turn stress into your secret superpower.
Step one: Acknowledge the stress
Neuroscience has shown how simply putting words to the stress you feel can already help.
In one study, subjects were shown distressing images while having their brains scanned. This triggered brain activity in regions associated with strong emotion. However, researchers noticed something strange when they asked subjects to describe the emotions provoked by these images…
The neural activity moved from the emotional part of their brain to the deliberate thinking part of the brain.
This simple study highlights how labelling our emotions out loud, instead of ignoring them, can shift the brain's focus from emotional reactivity to calm and deliberate thought. The latter is a much more helpful jumping-off point for devising a plan to overcome a stressor.
Step two: Reframe the stress
Not everyone responds to stress in the same way.
We see that when people believe stress to be debilitating and negative, they release more of the stress hormone cortisol. They also tend to under-, or over-, react to whatever is causing them stress.
On the other hand, people who see stress as stimulating and a force for good produce less cortisol and are more open to seeking positive outcomes from the situation.
Regardless of the situation, try to find one positive thing that might come out of this experience.
Step three: Embrace the stress
The physiological response to stress and excitement is nearly identical - the main difference is how you interpret it.
The adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline, which increases the heart rate, fills the brain with blood and rapidly increases energy levels.
The biological point of stress is to enhance the performance of the body and mind for important situations, whether that is defending your cave from a saber-toothed tiger or crushing your next business presentation.
Instead of trying to calm down, rather embrace this new state of:
- Greater alertness to keep you switched on in an important meeting.
- Boosted energy to exercise harder and for longer.
- Heightened focus to finish a project that is due.
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