What is stress?
People experience stress when they perceive that the demands placed on them are out of balance with the resources they have available to them. These demands can be emotional, physical, financial or work demands and our resources include, our problem solving skills, our mindset and our ability to regulate our emotions.
When our body and mind senses an imbalance it starts to become stressed and so you begin to feel like you cannot cope. For instance, you might start to get quite anxious, show signs of irritability or notice that your mind is racing more than usual. All of this can make it very hard to relax.
If your mind perceives that the demands being placed on you are putting you in danger or are threatening in some way, you will develop more intense physical, psychological and behavioural reactions.
This is the result of your threat system being activated. This system has been evolved to detect threats in the environment quickly to alert us to protect ourselves or others almost automatically. You will experience a surge of physical and emotional reactions, such as a rapid heart beat to get the blood pumping to your muscles, shallow breathing to get more oxygen to your brain and intense feelings of anger, fear or disgust to get you to leap into action. All this was perfect for our ancestors who needed to act quickly when approached by a predator. However, this system is no longer so adaptive for us as it works on the basis of ‘better safe than sorry’. This means it can easily become overly sensitive and lead to unhelpful behaviours in the long term, such as withdrawal from others, increase in substance misuse, depression and an inability to follow life goals out of fear.
Everybody responds to stress differently
It is important to emphasise that we all have different sensitivities towards stressors within the environment and we will all therefore react differently when demands are placed on us. Some of us will be more resilient to the demands, this is a result of the intricate relationship between our genes, our social environment and past experiences. It is not something to criticise or blame yourself over as that will just make things worse!
Post-traumatic stress (PTSD)-what is it?
PTSD is a unique range of anxiety-based symptoms, which can be triggered in an individual who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. These symptoms can include, flashbacks, panic, sweating, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and/or obsessive control and fear-based behaviours.
No one has gone through life without having experienced some sort of traumatic event. However, our response and recovery from the event very much depends on a number of factors, including our age, the social support we have available to us and the type of trauma.
More complex symptoms can develop if the trauma was more than one isolated event, such as ongoing physical, emotional or sexual abuse, if the trauma occurred at a young age and if the ability to escape or be rescued was perceived as unlikely.
What can I do to let go of stress and fear?
Firstly, I want to emphasise that recovery is possible no matter how chronic the stress has been or how hopeless you may feel at this current time.
It is our mindset, which has been shown to be the most critical factor in determining whether we recover from trauma or continue to experience burnout and fear.
In therapy you can be supported to uncover beliefs around stress and your ability to cope that might be keeping you on alert and activating unpleasant emotions. In addition, therapy can remove obstacles to self-empathy such as, anger, resentment and shame in order for you to feel more connected to yourself and others.
Will I have to relive my painful experiences?
Often we underestimate our ability to be with and process painful emotions. By facing our fears and turning towards what we normally run away from we can feel more in control of our decisions and not let our desire to sedate or numb our internal world get in the way of experiencing joy and reaching our potential. However, the process of therapy should be a loving one that goes at your own pace so that your body learns to respond differently when triggered.
Flourishing under stress
Health Psychologist Kelly Mcgonigal reports that research has shown that stress can strengthen our hearts and event make our bodies more resilient. For us to flourish we need to reach out to others for support when we are feeling stressed. This can include coming to therapy but also means picking up the phone to confide in a friend or reaching out to a colleague. When we share our problems with others we activate our internal self-soothing system, which relaxes our blood vessels, sends calming hormones around the body and brings us back to a state of balance more quickly.
Developing compassion is particularly key to prevent against rumination and self-criticism that leads to our stress systems being more sensitive. It is about developing our self-empathy and ability to stand back from feelings so that we feel more in control and have more choice available to us other than to withdraw or avoid.