When we experience stress, our reactions are primarily governed by the area of the brain which controls our fight or flight reactions – the amygdala. In addition, when stressed, the brain is flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. This can be very helpful when we’re in danger and need to react swiftly, but it is not so good if we are stressed so frequently that our brains are reacting in this way constantly, even when there is no real danger.
Sometimes our stress levels are peaking too often because we are:
- Desperately trying to multi-task and therefore put too much pressure on our brain to spread its attention and capacities too thin;
- Continuously getting ramped up in arguments causing our stress levels to simmer away throughout the day;
- So disorganised that we are always running late and feel under pressure as a result; or
- Our expectations of ourselves and others are unrealistic and therefore cause constant disappointment.
Ongoing high levels of stress are not good for our brain. Stress can affect our memory and concentration and it can make us vulnerable to clinical anxiety and depression. We may even start to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs or even food which can lead to a host of other health and relationship issues.
Stress can affect us in many ways:
- Emotionally – anxiety, depression, tension and anger
- The way we think – poor concentration, forgetfulness, indecisiveness, apathy, and hopelessness
- Behaviourally – increased drinking and smoking, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, nervousness, and gambling
- Physically – cardiovascular disease (although some research now disputes this), weight problems, increased accidents and safety risks.
According to Lazarus’ definition, we are stressed when circumstances feel outside of our control – when they are too big to handle. It can be so easy to become overwhelmed at times of stress by focusing only on the problem. In doing so we can make a huge mountain out of a molehill and even if the problem is as big as a mountain, we can feel powerless to climb it. Think for yourself about what causes you the most stress. Is it relationship issues? Money issues? Time pressures? Too many responsibilities? Health concerns?
We all have different stress triggers at various points in our lives, and so it’s a good idea to become aware of what your personal triggers are. If you are keen to develop some strategies to manage or even prevent your stress, then begin by noticing when you become stressed. It could be at certain times, in certain situations, or with certain people. Once you get a clear understanding for yourself, you can begin to look into what you can do about it.
A very simple strategy I learnt a long time ago for managing stress was this idea of:
When you’re feeling stressed, stop and check out what it is that is causing you stress, think about whether there is anything you can do to change the situation, problem or outcome? Make a plan and take action if there is something you can change. If there isn’t then chuck it!
Spending time worrying about a situation you can’t change isn’t going to help. Rather, decide not to focus on the negative and instead be more realistic in your approach. The one thing you do have control over is your thinking about the situation, as well as your reaction to it – so chuck the worry and focus on what you can do.
This is an edited extract from BLOOM! – Mental Health and Wellbeing by Tasha Broomhall which can be ordered here.