You’ve had a bad day at work. You’re under pressure with deadlines closing in from all sides. Both kids are sick or won’t stop screaming. The car broke down (or maybe it hasn’t yet, but you fear it may do so at any moment). Your temper has flared up a couple of times.
You might have noticed that you’ve been smoking or drinking more during this difficult time. Or maybe you overindulged on the junk food?
Compounding the situation may be the fact that you’ve not been sleeping well. Maybe you’ve sensed the pressure in physical form: it may have come across as a vague and general tension, a headache, or even your heartrate feeling all over the place. You might even have gotten ill.
To add to the worry, you may be feeling anxious or just down and depressed about the whole situation.
What is stress?
If you haven’t guessed, the above situation describes some of the causes, effects and outcomes of stress. The feeling of being stressed out is not pleasant, yet it’s something that everyone deals with. While stress can actually play an important role in things like alertness and motivation, it can also cause long-term harm if left unaddressed for too long.
Thankfully, modern advances in mental health and wellbeing mean we have an excellent understanding of the physical and psychological causes of stress, its symptoms, and its effects — along with a very good understanding of how to manage and cope with stress.
So what is a stressor?
You probably know that prolonged or intensely stressful situations can make you feel irritable or result in aggressive behaviour. Indeed, even the calmest of people can get into an agitated state if they find themselves feeling under intense pressure.
So what exactly is going on when you’re stressed? What actually causes us to respond in this way?
In the broadest sense, to be in a state of stress (i.e. to be stressed) means your body is responding to what is known as a stressor.
A stressor is basically anything that causes the release of stress hormones.
A stressor can be:
- Physiological, whereby the stressor is a physical factor like pain, chemicals and drugs, illness, intense heat or cold, physical discomfort, etc.
- Psychological, whereby something is perceived as threatening or difficult, like heavy traffic, a painful family get-together, work deadlines, money problems, etc.
At the heart of the behaviour that results from stressors (a stressor being a stressful situation) is a complex set of biological processes in the brain and body known as the stress response.
During a stress response, also called the fight or flight response, the body makes certain changes in order to better deal with a threat. Your heart rate increases, your blood carries more oxygen to your muscles, your pupils dilate (get bigger), your breathing speeds up, and your body prepares to metabolize fat into energy. These (and many more) changes are evolutionary responses intended to improve your survival.
Healthdirect Australia, the Government’s public health information service, puts it as follows:
“Stress is an expected human response to challenging or dangerous situations. Humans have evolved over time to be able to experience a range of stressors and recover from them… Experiencing stress is part of being alive. A small amount of stress, such as meeting a challenge or deadline, can actually be helpful. It can lead to increased alertness, energy and productivity. [However,] a complete lack of stress can lead to reduced motivation and performance.“
Though we may not like it, stressors and the stress response are a fundamental part of life.
You’re almost certainly familiar with how stress can affect day-to-day functioning.
One consequence of stress is that we’re more likely to say or do things impulsively that we regret. You might verbally ‘lash out’ at someone (or in serious cases, even get physical), drive recklessly, or respond aggressively to a perceived insult or attack on your character.
Stress can affect other behaviours too. In attempting to ‘deal’ with the stressful situation, we tend to be more prone to acting out and doing things that we later regret.
For example, smoking, alcohol, rewarding ourselves with junk food or putting off other tasks to binge on Netflix are common ways in which people try to cope with feeling stressed.
Stress can even increase the likelihood of you missing or forgetting details, and ‘cloud’ your thoughts and concentration.
Stress can affect you in many different ways, both psychological and physiological (a detailed list can be found here). You may see it in other people. Or you may be aware that it’s happening in yourself, but you might just not be sure how to stop it.
Stress relief and stress management
One of the more insidious aspects of stress (particularly if it results from multiple sources) is the way in which it can make you feel like you’re not in control. This in turn can leave you feeling like you can’t cope because you cannot move on from your situation.
There’s actually a lot more you can do than you thought. In fact, effective solutions to stress management need not be overly complex. Here are some common things that people use to relieve stress.
- Acknowledge that that you are stressed. Simply accepting that a situation is stressful can influence your outlook and ultimately help you feel better.
- Exercise. Yes, exercise is a fantastic antidote for stress. In fact, the mental health benefits of exercise are well documented. Obviously it also helps your physical health.
- Get moving. Are you experiencing work stress? Simply stepping away for a few minutes through a simple walk around the block can ‘get the blood flowing’ and help clear the mind.
- Make sleep a priority (if you can). Sleep quality is a major factor in wellbeing, physical and mental health. It’s a fact: better sleep can lower stress.
- Try to switch off (literally). Can work emails wait until the next day? It’ one thing to be on call, but if you’re not, that message will probably still be in your inbox tomorrow morning.
- Talk it out. The effectiveness of talking about where you’re at and how you’re going cannot be understated. The extent of the stress that we feel is often due to several things ‘piling up’. Consider opening up to a family member, friend or work colleague. If for whatever reason you feel that’s not an option, consider talking to a professionally trained counsellor over the phone.
If you or someone you know is struggling and want to speak to a professional counsellor, SuicideLine Victoria is available 24/7. Call us on 1300 651 251.
If it is an emergency, call 000.