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We cannot avoid stress -- modern life is inherently stressful -- but it is important to learn to manage stress if we are to avoid a range of problems, both physical and psychological more

Stress is defined as anything that takes us beyond our comfort zone; anything unusual, challenging or radically different is stressful. The more outside our comfort zone we are and the longer the duration of this, the greater the stress ... read more

Our internal response to external stress is anxiety. This anxiety triggers major physical and psychological changes -- the so-called "fight or flight response" -- designed to increase our chances of survival in physically threatening situations. Stress triggers these changes even though there is no threat to our survival. Without physical exertion to reverse these changes, we remain "on alert", stressed and anxious ... read more

Stress and our internal response to it -- anxiety -- accumulates. It's a bit like a reservoir, filling up with water (stress) until it eventually overwhelms its capacity. It is important to be aware of your "level" ... read more

Once aware of your level you must take control of managing it; release stress and reduce anxiety using, for example, exercise, breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga etc.You may also be able to manage your stress by examining the expectations you have of yourself and working with partners, family or co-workers to organise things in ways that help reduce the demands placed upon you... read more


Stress at work. Photo by Carl DwyerLife itself is inherently stressful; dealing with children, queueing in traffic, a busy supermarket, an irate boss, too much work or a deadline that is hard to meet -- all of these are stressful. In addition, life also throws at us those occasional or unusual events like moving house, losing your job, the ending of a relationship, illness in yourself or a loved one or a death in the family. A certain amount of stress can actually make life more interesting; we tend to work faster and be more focused when there is some stress but increase the level of stress too much and we start to suffer. Performance declines -- whether it is on the job, caring for family or studying for a qualification. Not only that, we can start to experience a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms, many of which are unpleasant, inconvenient or worrying. Some of these you probably know about, like headaches for example. Others are less well-known; tingling in the face or extremities, a feeling of strangeness or unreality as if you are outside your body, poor concentration and short-term memory -- all of these are just examples of how stress can manifest itself physically. Moreover, you might find yourself wanting to withdraw socially or becoming frightened, maybe losing confidence when doing something that you have done a great many times before without apparent problem.

So Just What is Stress?

Stress is anything that tests us or takes us outside of the norm. This is obviously why changing job, moving house or dealing with a bereavement are so stressful; they don't happen very often and they are outside of the range of our normal experience. However, anything that puts us under pressure can be stressful. For example, having to perform extra duties to cover for a colleague who is off work, dealing with more things that we would usually deal with, performing a routine task more quickly than usual, learning a new route - anything that is different to the routine. The greater the difference, the greater the stress. Plus which, some of us are better at adapting to new situations than others and this also has to be factored in. So why is change or difference so difficult for us? To answer this, we have to think back hundreds of thousands of years to our more savage past as a species. In those times, anything that was different might potentially be a threat to our survival. So for example, that bush look a bit different to yesterday? Maybe there's a wild animal hiding behind it? For situations like these, nature gave us a fantastic "emergency response system" designed to make our bodies operate at peak efficiency in a crisis, therefore enhancing our chances of survival.

The Fight or Flight Response

What happens when I get anxious? Click on the image to go to a page with more details

When we perceive that there is a threat to our existence our bodies respond by producing the hormone adrenalin. This prepares us to either fight or flee from the danger by triggering a number of physical changes designed to increase our chances of survival

The so-called "fight or flight response" was fantastic for dealing with a sabre toothed tiger or any other physical threat. Your body produces adrenalin and this causes a whole series of changes that are designed to increase your chances of survival. There is some information in the picture to the right but for more detail, including information on the longer term impact of stress on health, click here to visit the "what happens when I get anxious" page. And after physical exertion, nature has provided as with another response system, designed to heal wounds, reduce pain, calm us down and reverse all the changes triggered by the emergency.

The problem in this day and age is that we often have the "emergency response" but not the "calm down" response to get us back to normal. This is because the "emergency" is triggered by stress that does not require a massive physical response. So you come home from work, or college, or get to the end of your day, with the adrenalin still coursing through your veins. So far as your body is concerned, the "emergency" is still continuing. You feel anxious and edgy, irritable, maybe have aching shoulders and a tension headache. The following day, off you go again and the stress (together with the anxiety caused by it) accumulates. These physical responses to stress can accumulate to the point where you start to experience physical problems which seem serious or worrying. You can even begin to lose rationality and enter a state of panic. In fact, in extreme circumstances you may actually experience a so-called "panic attack". In a panic attack, your reactions are so severe that they are often mistaken for a heart attack with severe breathlessness, chest pain and even pain in the arms. There can be loss of sensation, dizziness, tingling in the face, visual and auditory disturbances. There is more information about panic attacks click here.

Stressometer: Illustration Alan Priest

How much Stress? Unless it is relieved, stress adds up, increasing your internal anxiety and stacking up problems both short and longer term

Accumulated Stress

Stress is on the outside and anxiety is our internal respopnse to that external stress.

Remember, stress is what we experience on the outside and anxiety is our internal response. Stress is created by any situation that places demands on us or which is unfamiliar

Stress and our internal response to it -- anxiety -- accumulates. It's a bit like a reservoir; imagine the water in the reservoir is your stress/anxiety level.

Water is continually pouring into it from various sources. Some are small streams continually trickling into the reservoir -- typically the everyday stress that affects us all as we live our lives.

There are also torrents -- a flood of stress from sudden or unusual life changes, or our overreaction to more normal events if we have been over-sensitised to anxiety because of longer term exposure.

Dam across huge reservoir holds back millions of gallons of water that have accumulated from myriad streams flowing into it.  Photo: Mike Wade

We are all subject to a certain amount of stress all the time. Stress accumulates like water in a reservoir -- and the source of this stress is less important than the overall level. It is important to monitor and manage your stress level because when it is high, it needs only a little extra stress to "push you over the edge"

The best way to deal with this continual accumulation of stress is the same way that it is dealt with in a real reservoir.

Water gushing out of a dam, using channels designed to relieve the pressure. Photo: Robert Linder

When the water accumulated in the reservoir reaches full capacity, some is released

Once the water level reaches design limits, channels are opened up which allow the water t escape. This safely reduces stress on the dam wall, enabling it to function normally throughout a long life. At times when lots of water is rushing into the reservoir, water will continually also be pouring out of it, maintaining a healthy balance. In our lives, the equivalent of this is activity that reverses the effects of adrenalin, calming the mind and body, easing tension, helping us rebuild energy, helping us to sleep, promoting recovery and boosting the immune system. Exercise, even low intensity exercise like walking, achieves this. Meditation, massage, breathing exercises and something called progressive muscle relaxation are also highly effective examples. There is more detail about relaxation exercises here.

The last drop into a full glass breaks the surface tension, casuing water (anxiety) to overflow Photo: G & A Scholiers you are "full to the brim" with stress, it takes only one more drop to cause a flood. That "last drop" can be anything, even something trivial

Left unchecked, the level of accumulated stress overwhelms your capacity to cope. Huge quantities of anxiety overflow. There's enormous energy in this -- it's a panic attack, an out-of-control release of emotion and fear -- our internal response to external stress. It doesn't actually cause any damage as such but in the moment it is happening, it feels like it is going to do you harm. If not addressed, longer-term stress increases your chances of becoming clinically depressed The best way to deal with stress is to prevent it from accumulating. Practice becoming aware of your level of stress, so you know when it is important to consciously manage it down using relaxation, breathing techniques or exercise.

Managing Your Stress
Get used to monitoring your stress, taking time each day to consciously become aware of what level you are at. I usually suggest a scale of one to 10 and suggest to clients that they look out for the signs of stress like, for example, stiff shoulders, muscular tension, poor concentration, irritability, craving high energy foods, a sense of losing control or feeling overwhelmed etc. You need to "calibrate" your own scale so that you can quickly learn what a 4, a 7 or a 9 feels like (for example) and then take appropriate action to get that number down before it gets too high. You also need to become aware of the main sources of your stress. Some stress is unavoidable but you might be able to make changes to "even out" your stress and avoid particularly difficult or stressful times coinciding.

Stressed woman surrounded by numbers. Photo: Muriel Miralles de SawickiWhat's your number? The best way to control stress and anxiety is to prevent it from accumulating. Take responsibility for managing it, putting you in control

You may also be able to reduce your level of stress, simply by speaking up about it. Take time to share your thoughts with a loved one, co-worker or line manager. You may be able to reorganise responsibilities, discuss ways of sharing tasks or find other ways of reducing the strain.

What may also be important is a recognition of the stress that you put yourself under. Many of us are guilty of placing unreasonable demands on ourselves; for example, in terms of what we hope to achieve or the standard to which we hope to achieve it. We can feel that our best is never good enough or feel that we are always labouring under the threat of failure. These issues have more to do with self-esteem and with perception than they do with the amount we actually need to achieve in order to get by in life.

You may be vaguely aware that you drive yourself hard but it is often helpful to speak to a third party who knows you well in order to become fully aware of the extent to which this may be causing your problem with stress. Alternatively, it may be easier to speak to someone who actually doesn't know you and who can listen impartially. As a counsellor, I often find that I can notice those things that my clients are unable to notice or acknowledge for themselves. It can also be helpful to work with someone else to help you develop better adapted ways of dealing with your life. This might include more effective time management for example or help with techniques for helping you to organise a busy or demanding life. Again, I can usually help my clients with this, based not only on my 15 years experience as a therapist but also on many years of working at a senior level in organisations.

Learn to relax

Woman practising yoga. Photo: Lorant Fulop Relaxation and exercise directly counteract the effects of the "fight or flight" response. Moreover, when your body is relaxed, "biofeedback" causes your brain to relax also. However, relaxation isn't just an absence of activity; it is an activity in itself. It isn't difficult and you will get better at it with practise. Breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga and focusing techniques are all highly effective in combating anxiety. For more information and some examples, click here.


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