Understanding stress

One of the more common myths surrounding stress is that it’s an illness. It’s true that unchecked, sustained stress of any kind can cause us to develop mental and physical health problems but stress in itself is not an illness. Instead, it’s a set of circumstances which can cause you to feel out of control, overwhelmed and ultimately, burnt-out.

What is stress?

Stress is a natural part of life, and something we all experience from time to time. Instead of thinking about stress as an illness, it can be helpful to think of it as a set of circumstances which cause us to react mentally and physically. If we ignore the source of the stress and are chronically reacting, we can become unwell over the longer term.

People often use the terms ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’ interchangeably but there are some significant differences.

  • We experience stress when the demands of our environment outstrip our actual or perceived ability to deal with them. We lack the ability, time, resources, or energy to cope effectively. At its worst, stress can cause us to lose focus and feel out of control.
  • On the other hand, we experience pressure when we are challenged to meet reasonable demands for which we have the tools to cope but are stretched outside of our normal comfort zone. Pressure helps us to focus and perform to the best of our ability even if we don’t enjoy the task at hand. A life without any pressure whatsoever wouldn’t be satisfying or engaging, and you’d find yourself bored and unmotivated pretty quickly.

“Stress is not an illness – it is a state. However, if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop.” Health and Safety Executive

No one can avoid stress in life but it’s important to tackle the source of your stress before it becomes overwhelming. You can do this by practicing self-care, speaking to a friend, family member, colleague, or someone independent such as the retailTRUST helpline on 0808 801 0808. Access support with practical issues such as debt management, ask for help with tasks at home and work, or take steps to build your resilience.

What influences our ability to deal with stress?

It’s important to recognise that one person’s stressor is another person’s challenge, and everyone copes differently. We all have our own ‘tipping points’ and we cope with stress in unique ways. There are many factors that influence how we cope with stress including:

  • The type of stressor. A stressful event such as a bereavement will have a more serious impact on us than a tight deadline at work, for example.
  • Whether or not we’ve encountered the stressor in the past. Some stressors become normalised after repeated exposure such as public speaking or tight deadlines at work.
  • Our stage of life. As we become older and are exposed to various stressors, we accrue coping skills which can lessen their impact on our wellbeing and we’re likely to recover more quickly.
  • How we saw our parents and other caregivers react to stress when we were growing up.
  • Our personality and individual coping style.
  • Our experience of trauma at any stage of life.
  • Our environment, including the weather, access to green space, the condition of our housing, and how safe we feel in our neighbourhood.
  • Genetics, although it’s not fully understood how genes influence the stress response, they appear to play a role.
  • Our lifestyle. Eating well, exercising regularly and getting a good sleep every night can play a big part in how well we cope with day-to-day stressors.
  • Any substances we use including alcohol, tobacco or drugs.
  • The quality of our familial, professional and social support networks.
  • Our expectations of life. The higher the expectations are, the more likely it is that we’ll feel stressed when things don’t go our way.

It’s important to remember that the way in which we deal with stress isn’t fixed. There are plenty of ways we can manage stress proactively and build resistance to it.

Complete the Cohen perceived stress scale

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Types of stress

Although there are countless sources of stress, there are three kinds of stress reactions.

1. Acute stress

Acute stress is one of the least damaging types of stress, which is good because it is also the most common. We can experience acute stress on occasion throughout the day as a result of facing an immediate perceived threat, either physical, emotional or psychological. Examples of acute stress can include encountering a traffic jam on the way to work, visiting the dentist, or being given a task which requires you to adapt quickly and without warning.

Once the actual or perceived threat has passed, you return to your normal self and get on with your day with no ill effects.

2. Episodic acute stress

People who experience stress on a frequent basis can be said to experience episodic acute stress. These are people who are typically presented with a regular stream of stressors, whether real or perceived, and often feel so rushed that they have little to no time to stop and relax. People who suffer from episodic acute stress often take on many responsibilities. As a result, they can find it difficult to feel on top of things. Perpetually in the grip of acute stress overload, these individuals are rarely able to step back and evaluate the stressor but instead, find themselves quickly and automatically reacting.

Once the actual or perceived threat has passed, the person remains primed – consciously or subconsciously – to become stressed again. This consistent state of ‘fight or flight’ can cause health problems over the long term including gastrointestinal issues, heart disease, high blood pressure, skin problems, anxiety, low mood, depression, and a host of others.

3. Chronic stress

This is one of the most harmful type of stress, and over time, it can cause significant emotional and physical health problems. Examples of chronic stressors include, but are not limited to, living in a domestically abusive relationship, being bullied at work or home with no resolution in sight, being involved in war either as a civilian or soldier, or other ongoing, seemingly hopeless situations. The person experiencing chronic stress starts to get to the point where he or she cannot see an escape from the cause of stress, and ultimately gives up on seeking solutions.

When an individual lives with chronic stress, his or her responses become ingrained due to a change in the hardwiring of the neurobiology of the brain and body and they can find it hard to choose different ways of reacting even though they may want to. Some people living with chronic stress may eventually develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s important to remember that whether the source of your stress is home or work-related, your body’s physiological and psychological responses are the same. In other words, your body and mind can’t tell the difference between the cause of the stress. However, the coping skills you can develop, and those you already use, will enable you to tackle the source of the stress and become a more resilient person.

The stress response

We’ve all felt stressed at times and whether the stressor is serious or relatively insignificant, our body and brain work together to tell us that something is wrong so that we can prepare to either flee or stay and fight. This ancient response involves the body’s hormonal system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adreno-cortical system (known as the ‘HPA axis’), a system which is extremely efficient at warning us about threats. The HPA axis is so effective in fact that it prompts us to react before the cortex (the part of the brain responsible for thought and judgment) is able to check on the reasonableness of our reaction. In other words, our brains are wired in such a way as to influence us to act before we can properly consider the consequences of our actions.

While this might seem the wrong way around, it’s this very mechanism that keeps us safe from harm. When we’re stressed by something or someone, we experience physiological and biological changes. In the case of anger, the fight or flight response is triggered, allowing us the focus and energy to fight anything we see is threatening to our wellbeing.

During fight or flight, we experience many changes in our body including:

  • Raised blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscles tensing
  • Skin flushing or paling
  • Dilation of the pupils
  • Dilation of the blood vessels to increase blood flow to muscles
  • A significant peak in energy caused by the release of metabolic energy sources such as fat and glycogen
  • Heightened focus on the target of our stress, whether a person or situation
  • Disrupted memory creation (this is why we often cannot recall the exact details of a stressful event due to being in a state of high arousal).

The wind-down phase

Once the stressor has passed, we enter the wind-down phase. However, the adrenaline which coursed through our body when we were stressed can last hours or even days. Its presence lowers our stress threshold making us prone to feeling disproportionately stressed over minor things that we wouldn’t normally even register. Think of it as a ‘fight or flight hangover’. Unless we realise that we’re still in the thrall of adrenaline during the wind-down phase, it’s unlikely that we’ll be making a conscious decision to remain calm and measured.

Knowing when to step back 

When we’re under constant unmanageable pressure, we have very little time to recover before the next onslaught. As a result, our body and mind can find it difficult to fully recover from fight or flight.

One of the biggest challenges we all face is that it’s often easier for us to identify that others are stressed before we notice the signs in ourselves. This is the paradox of stress. The more stressed we are, the less we notice what’s happening within us. However, when we think about our own signs and write them down, it’s much easier for us to be able to step back in the early stages and call upon both our internal resources, as well as seeking support from people who can help us.

Early warning signs that we need help coping manifest in four different ways:

  • Emotional (how we feel)
  • Cognitive (how we think and process information)
  • Physical (how we feel)
  • Behavioural (how we act).

Consider that by the time stress is causing us physical illness, it’s been going on for some time so ensure that you are regularly checking in on your stress levels and doing what you can to reduce the impact.

Here are a few examples of how these warning signs can impact on you during periods of stress:

Physical signsEmotional signs Cognitive signs Behavioural signs

Tearfulness

Feeling low

Difficulty focusing

Drinking more

Cold sores

Feeling hyper

Poor memory

Eating more or less

Tummy upsets

Easily angered

Not knowing where to start

Withdrawal from friends

Disrupted sleep

Rumination or repetitive thoughts

Confusion

Losing things easily

Download our tool to record the early warning signs of stress

Using this downloadable sheet, simply write down your early warning signs to help manage your stress. Use these common examples as a guide, although you’ll have your own unique signs and symptoms that will let you know when it’s time to step back.

 

Top tips on managing stress

Things you can do to help yourself bounce back when you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, and build resilience as you go.

  • Get enough sleep. Between seven and eight hours of nightly sleep tends to be seen as the norm. Although, only you can tell if you are getting too little – or too much – sleep.
  • Exercise. Did you know that even 30 minutes of activity, five times a week, can lift your mood and reduce anxiety?
  • Plan your meals. It’s worth planning your meals in advance to ensure that you’re giving your body everything it needs to work optimally. Avoiding sugar highs can also help.
  • Remember to breathe. When we become stressed or anxious, we tend to breathe more erratically and quickly which in turns makes us feel more stressed. Check out our suggestions for breathing exercises to help you to feel more in control.
  • Take time out. Even 15 minutes of ‘me time’ a day brings positive benefits.
  • Try and think more positively. Turning negative thoughts into positive actions will make you feel more in control and able to manage the challenges that life brings.
  • Get organised. Don’t try to organise everything at once. One task a day can bring a sense of calm to an otherwise overwhelming to-do list.
  • Ask for and accept support. Start with something small. You could ask your partner to do the grocery shopping once a fortnight, for example.
  • Get creative. Spending time creating something focuses the brain in much the same way as meditation does, bringing calm and perspective.
  • Take time to recover. Just as you need time to recover from a physical illness or injury, you should ensure that you take time to recover after a period of stress.

Further resources which you may find helpful: