Stress cope with your enemey within
Almost everyone experiences occasional stress and while a small amount of stress can be motivating, excess or prolonged stress can be harmful to both our physical and mental wellbeing.
Stress usually starts as pressure – from ourselves or others – and if we are unable to cope with this pressure, we start feeling stressed. The effects of stress will differ from one person to another, but if left untreated it can lead to illness.
There are many things that may cause us stress, including work, relationships, family issues and financial problems. For some, stress causes them to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking or drinking - and while this may feel like a quick fix, these habits are harmful to your health and in the long run the stress itself still isn't being addressed. In this article we will look at stress in some detail, including stress symptoms and what you can do to manage your stress.
What is stress?
Stress is an inherent reaction embedded from our caveman era. Back then people had to deal with threatening situations, which caused our brains to release a range of ‘stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to provoke what is known as the fight-or-flight response. The fight response would give us a burst of energy, readying us to fight for our lives, while the flight response would encourage us to flee from danger and get to safety.
These days we rarely encounter such threatening situations, however our brains continue to react in this embedded manner when we are under pressure. When this happens, and there is no option to fight or flight - the stress hormones can build up and affect our immune system and blood pressure. Over time this build-up of stress can affect our mental health as well, leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
Causes of stress
Causes of stress will depend on the individual person - so what may cause stress for one person may not be stressful to another. Having said this, however, most stressful situations are associated with change of situation or a lack of control. Even if the change is a positive one, it can still cause stress.
Some common stressful events include:
getting engaged or married
moving house or relocating
having a baby
As well as such events, stress can also be caused by enduring circumstances, such as:
having financial problems
caring for a disabled family member/friend
Problems at work
Occasionally, the absence of change or activities in life is the source of stress.
As mentioned above, stress is experienced in different manners by different people and some personalities find themselves more susceptible to stress than others. However, there are certain symptoms that are frequently associated with stress. These can an emotional as well as physical affect.
Emotional stress symptoms
feeling agitated, frustrated or quick to anger
feeling overwhelmed and teary
having a low sense of self-esteem
Avoiding other people and social situations
Physical stress symptoms
using alcohol/drugs/food for comfort
digestive problems and upset stomach
Experiencing chest pains or palpitations.
Tremor or shaking
The physical side effects of stress are caused by hormones which released by our brain during the fight or flight response - these include adrenaline and cortisol.
When adrenaline is released it causes rapid changes to our body, increasing blood flow and speeding up our breathing rate and heartbeat. You may become pale, sweat more and your mouth may feel dry. This hormone is designed to help us either fight or flight in response to the stressful state of affairs. When the threat is physical, this works well and once the danger has passed, the body recovers. When the threat is emotional however, the effects of adrenaline subside much more slowly - meaning you could feel tense and anxious for much longer. If the situation is enduring, you could feel the effects of adrenaline long-term and this is when your body and mental health begin to suffer.
Cortisol is present in our body constantly, but levels increase when you are faced with danger, or a stressful situation. In the short-term, much like a rush of adrenaline, the effects on your body are positive and help you deal with an immediate crisis. Long-term stress however can cause a constantly raised level of cortisol, which can have a number of harmful effects, including:
blood sugar imbalances
suppressed thyroid activity
high blood pressure
Increased abdominal fat storage.
People's tolerance of stress differs, meaning for some the effects will be severe but for others they will be manageable.
When should you seek help for stress?
The issue with stress is that it exists as a problem that feeds on itself, and over time lowers your ability to cope. Because of this - the sooner you seek help for stress, the better. Since stress is frequently viewed as simply a 'part of life' it can be difficult to know when outside support is required. As a rule, you should look to seek help if the following is happening:
stress (and the effects of stress) dominate your life
stress is affecting your physical health
you are using unhealthy coping methods in dealing with your stress
You are experiencing angry outbursts that are affecting those around you.
Treatment for stress
Recognising the negative effect stress is having on your life, and understanding that this is not OK is an important first step. Once you have admitted to yourself that you need support, you can look into the various treatments available. Your first port of call may be your GP who will be able to assess your stress levels and suggest appropriate treatments. Below is a list of some suggested treatments for stress:
One recommendation commonly offered by doctors is HeartMath counselling and psychotherapy. Talking with a professional about the difficulties you're experiencing can help you understand any underlying issues that may be causing your stress - for example, low self-esteem. Working with your counsellor you will then be able to identify your personal stress triggers and discuss methods for coping with them.
One form of therapy that has been
recommended for those struggling with stress
is HeartMath . HeartMath is a new
technology that has broad-based
applications in stress reduction,
rehabilitation, and performance enhancement.
HeartMath techniques have been proven to
facilitate rapid, profound, and enduring
improvements in a wide variety of
conditions. The HeartMath system is a
scientifically validated way to reduce stress,
and more importantly, to transform the
negative emotional and physiological effects
that occur when you experience feelings of stress or a stressful event. Heartmath is different from other stress relieving activities like listening to music or taking a warm bath because those activities take place after the event has passed. By the time you wind down, you’ve already experienced the harmful, often unpleasant effects of stress. The stress hormone cortisol, for example, stays in your system for hours once it is released in to your system. High levels of stress hormones can have a serious negative impact on your physical health. So the key appears to be learning how to transform your reaction to stress, and therefore stop the emotional and hormonal fallout that follows.
What is the science behind HeartMath?
In studying the science of the heart, The Institute of HeartMath has discovered is that your heart rhythms have an impact on your thinking. When your heart rhythm is coherent (smooth and orderly), you are able to access higher-thinking centres in your brain, so can think more clearly and see more options or solutions to problems. When your heart becomes incoherent, this access becomes inhibited and you are likely to find your reactions are slower and you are not be able to think so clearly.
Studies have found that people in a coherent state (i.e. where their heart rhythm pattern is smooth and orderly) are noticeably able to improve their thinking and performance, whether they are making decisions or playing sports.
Over time, coherence also helps to reduce the ‘stress’ hormone cortisol – which is produced whenever you experience feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger or despair – and increases the ‘vitality’ hormone DHEA. Ideally, these hormones should be in balance, but when you experience frequent stress, cortisol can become too high and DHEA depleted. This pattern is found in most major diseases as is associated with accelerated aging, brain cell death, impaired memory and learning, decreased bone density, impaired immune function, increased blood sugar and increased fat accumulation around the waist and hips.
How does HeartMath work?
HeartMath provides techniques that can be practiced daily to help you actively reduce stress in your life. The premise of the HeartMath system is different to many other approaches to stress relief, which typically focus on calming down after the stressful event has occurred. With HeartMath, you learn a simple coherence technique that can help you ‘reset’ your physiological reaction to stress as the event occurs.
Just a couple of HeartMath breaths can help you stop the hormonal cascade that triggers the release of cortisol – and you stay coherent (i.e. calm and in balance). When practiced regularly, research has found that the exercise can help you to feel better emotionally and improve your intuition, creativity and cognitive performance.
What conditions can be helped with HeartMath?
Heart Rhythm coherence feedback (HeartMath) can be very useful in the treatment of chronic anxiety, stress, depression, anger and other emotional issues. It is also an effective addition to treatment programs for chronic conditions that are associated with or exacerbated by emotional stress, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, hypertension, asthma, environmental sensitivity, sleep disorders, diabetes, cardiac arrhythmias, hypertension, congestive heart failure, and many others. It has been proven particularly effective in cardiac rehabilitation programs to help patients reduce stress and increase cardiovascular efficiency. HeartMath can also be used for performance enhancement and for reducing test taking anxiety.
Stress is an increasingly common concern and there are a number of support groups available. Being able to talk through your difficulties with other people who are going through something similar can help you feel more connected. You may also find that you are able to swap tips and ideas about stress management - in many cases, the release of talking about your concerns can be enough to reduce stress.
Everyday stress management
As well as the above treatments for stress, there are things you can do
yourself at home to help manage your stress. There are several excellent
HeartMath tools that were developed for this purpose. Mental health
experts agree that the following tips can help with everyday stress
Know your stress triggers
If you're not sure what it is that's causing your stress, it might be a good idea
to keep a journal and note down any stressful episodes over the course of
a fortnight. Aim to include as much information about your experience as possible, including the time and place, what you were doing, what you were thinking about, how you felt physically and a rating out of 10 of how stressed or anxious you felt.
Using this journal you should be able to figure out what your stress triggers are, how you cope with pressure and how you could potentially change your reactions.
Look after yourself
This means getting enough exercise, eating well and taking time to relax and mentally focus out from obsessing over the causes of your stress. Health professionals agree that exercise is a useful tool when tackling stress as it releases 'feel-good' endorphins, helping you to physically and mentally de-stress. Eating well is another important factor. Eating an unhealthy diet puts your body under physical stress, which can aggravate any emotional stress you may be feeling.
Taking time to relax is another key part of self-care and is essential if you want to reduce your stress. Aim to dedicate a certain amount of time every day to relaxation, whether that be HeartMath meditation, practising yoga, reading, or simply clearing out your own thoughts.
One of the main reasons people feel stressed is because they feel as if they don't have control of a situation. While of course it is impossible, nor desirable, to always be in control, you can choose to control your approach to a state of affairs. If you remain passive in your thinking (i.e. "I can't do anything about my problem") then chances are your stress levels will continue to increase. Alternatively, if you choose to accept your problem and seek to find a solution to it (which may involve you reaching out for help), you will begin to feel more in control.
Connect with others
When we are stressed it can be easy for us to hide ourselves away from the outside world and avoid social encounters. This can lead to a feeling of isolation and even increased stress. Talking through your problems with friends, family and even co-workers can help you feel more connected and may even help you view your concerns in a different perspective. Sometimes talking to someone else about their worries puts our own in perspective. Some people find it therapeutic to get out of their own head for a while, so why not consider volunteering?
Avoid unhealthy habits
When we are stressed it is easy to rely on unhealthy habits for escape and comfort. Such habits may include smoking, drinking, taking drugs or even overeating. In the long-run, these habits will only create new problems and as they don't tackle the cause of your stress, you will continue to feel the effects and probably with a vengeance.
Accept what you cannot change
If a difficult situation arises and there is nothing you can do to change it, take a step back and accept this. Recognise that there are some things in life you cannot control. Instead try to focus on what you are able to control. For example, if you are being made redundant there is probably little you can do to turn the situation around. What you can do however is control your reaction and what you do next - you can choose to see it as an exciting opportunity and begin a new job search.
Learning how to relax properly is an essential part of stress management. There are many different relaxation techniques that you can try, many of which focus on relaxing your body and breathing in a certain way.
In preparation, look to set aside a few minutes a couple of times each day to relax and keep to this schedule. If you can, choose a quiet place away from distractions - if you have young children, why not have them join in? This can be especially useful before their bedtime.
For HeartMath tools for relaxation click here
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
In the UK there are currently no official rules or regulations stipulating what level of training a counsellor dealing with stress needs. There are however several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors to improve their knowledge of a particular area, so for peace of mind you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in issues regarding stress.
As a Heartmath Certified Trainer and Licensed Coach, I am dedicated to helping others understand the physiological and emotional aspects of their lives and the connection and overlap between these aspects. This in-turn allows people to self-improve the physiological and emotional aspects of their lives which I believe helps people activate their innate ability to self-heal when given the proper tools, information and guidance. My methodology is based on practical application of the science of stress management and which is custom fitted to each individual client’s objectives.
For more information please contact me
We all encounter physiological and emotional barriers and I am passionate about helping my clients find out what can be done to overcome those barriers in order to experience their lives in the best possible way both personally and professionally.