How often do we hear friends or colleagues complain of feeling stressed? How often do we ourselves feel that we are under too much pressure, either at home or at work? Feeling stressed, and talking about it, appear to have become integral parts of our lives today, so it is important for us to understand more about stress and how to manage it better.
Stress is actually a normal physiological response to our environment. From an evolutionary perspective, the “flight or fight” response is a protective mechanism to increase our chances of survival in the face of hostile surroundings. When our mind senses a challenge or a threat, whether real or imagined, chemicals, including adrenaline, start to flow in the bloodstream, increasing the heart rate and breathing, tensing the muscles and increasing levels of alertness. We are, therefore, ready to stay and face the challenge or run away from it, thereby protecting ourselves. When the system works properly, the stress response helps us by focusing on a challenge and dealing with it, for example helping you focus on a question in an important examination. In sports it helps you prepare for a sprint or avoid a punch in boxing.
There is, however, a fine balance that needs to be maintained, and when this doesn’t happen, we can experience unpleasant symptoms of excessive stress. If the mind starts sensing a lot of stressful events, or starts sensing ordinary events as stressful, the same “flight or fight” response is triggered repeatedly as a reaction to everyday occurrences, such as traffic congestion, an unruly class or a child misbehaving. The body then starts feeling the effect of being in a constant state of heightened alertness and readiness. This is chronic stress and it can have very unpleasant psychological and physical effects. The common features of this state are irritability, low mood and unhappiness, worrying and feeling anxious, problems with sleep, feeling dissatisfied, feeling indecisive and panicky, losing temper easily and poor concentration and motivation. The results of this include problems with personal relationships and difficulties at school or work. It can also have an adverse effect on your physical health.
For many of us, our day to day lives are busy, fast paced and hectic, with very little time to unwind and relax. It’s not surprising that studies have shown that our environment and significant life events have an important impact on our levels of stress. People may face different stressors at different times. For example, teachers may find that the stressors that they face in term time may include such things as dealing with unruly classes, taking work home, inspections and meeting deadlines. During the holidays, they may face other stressors, such as problems at home, difficulties dealing with their own children and financial worries. It should be noted, though, that not all stressors are negative events. Individuals react to different stressors in their own way and the impact of each stressor is variable. It is clear, however, that we cannot simply avoid all stress; we have to learn how to manage it.
Just as the cause and effect of stress is different in each person, the way an individual deals with stress varies as well. Everyone has their own way of coping with stress. These coping mechanisms can be either constructive or maladaptive, for example:
• confiding in supportive friends/family
• taking self away from stressful situation
• recognising and dealing with early signs of stress
• distractions from stress, such as hobbies
• getting aggressive with others
• losing temper, shouting, breaking things
• ignoring stress till it gets out of hand
• drinking, using substances
• deliberate self harm.
The first step is to recognise when you get overly stressed and the situations which make your levels of stress increase. If there are specific stressful situations you can avoid or walk away from, identify those. The next step is to look at how you cope with stress and to try and identify the adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies that you use.
This is very important in dealing with stress. Breathing exercises, yoga, relaxation tapes and distraction can all help. While this may be difficult, for example, in a classroom environment, a teacher may find it helpful to give the class a task to occupy them while they take a few minutes to calm down and relax, perhaps with some deep breaths.
Putting things into perspective
Try not to get too worked up about the little things that bother you. Make a list of the things in your day to day life that get you down and try to tackle a different one each day.
Recognise when you get stressed
If you feel yourself starting to get worked up, tell yourself that it is just the adrenaline flowing through you. Use your preferred method of relaxation to bring your breathing rate back to normal and try to consciously loosen tight muscles.
Find and strengthen your support network
Having friends or family with whom you can have a confiding relationship really helps. This serves as a vent for unhelpful feelings, a source of sympathetic and understanding feedback and it reinforces feelings of being part of a group. Just having someone listen to you and validate your point of view can make you feel better. If you are regularly reaching the point where you cannot deal with an ongoing situation without getting stressed, getting some respite from the situation can make a real difference. In these situations you should turn to friends and family, your support network, to help you out.
Try to recognise and avoid ways of coping that will do more harm than good. People may start using alcohol or drugs as a way of relieving stress, but will often end up in a worse situation than when they started. Do your best to adopt healthier coping strategies.
How can I recognise depression?
Depression is quite different from just feeling sad. Sadness is a normal human emotional state. People who have depression have a combination of symptoms, including low mood, loss of energy, loss of enjoyment, altered appetite, disrupted sleep, poor concentration and motivation, a loss of libido, a negative outlook and, in some cases, thoughts of suicide. The features are usually present for a period of at least a fortnight. If you feel that you, or someone you know, is experiencing these symptoms, a good place to seek help is your GP Surgery. Your GP will have been trained to diagnose and treat depression and, in more serious cases, will be able to refer you on to appropriate professionals.
Dr Sanjith Kamath worked as an NHS Consultant Psychiatrist before becoming a partner of Private Psychiatry LLP.
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 43: November/December 2009.