The term ‘I’m stressed’ is something most of us probably hear, and say, on a regular basis. From juggling tight deadlines at work to running a busy household, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed at times.
But there’s an important difference between manageable everyday stress – the sort that can even be motivating – and stress that builds up insidiously, turning into a serious issue in the process.
Accumulative, ongoing stress can turn into a major problem in terms of mental health. Neurological insights into how the brain processes stress suggests that stress can be a key element in the development of anxiety and depression.
According to Dr Sarah Edelman, clinical psychologist and author of Change Your Thinking, when we think about stress, it’s important to distinguish between stress and anxiety.
“Anxiety is an internal emotional state, which can sometimes develop into a condition, while stress refers to demands coming from our environment, such as time pressure, a challenging job, or a sick child. When we are under stress, we often experience anxiety, but we may also experience other emotions, such as frustration, guilt, anger or hopelessness,” explains Edelman.
“Anything that’s going on psychologically affects our bodies and the way they function,” she adds. “Whether we’re experiencing low mood, frustration or anger, there’s always a knock-on physiological effect.”
Muscle tension, teeth grinding, hair loss, headaches and dizziness are all somatic symptoms that can be brought on by stress. Likewise sleep disturbance, low energy, and exhaustion.
“Stress has a direct impact on our mood too,” says Edelman. “When we’re struggling with stress, we’re more likely to become moody, and withdrawn.”
“When stress becomes a persistent issue and something that feels beyond our control, that’s when it can start to affect our mental health and lead to depression.”
Unfortunately, in true Catch-22-style, low mood usually makes us less likely to do mood-enhancing things such as exercise and eat healthy food – or talk about our feelings – which in turn makes us feel even worse.
Fight or flight
It’s common to feel distracted and discombobulated when suffering with chronic stress. It can affect concentration and the way we think, causing our minds to race and our thoughts to become scattered.
The body’s immediate response to perceiving threat is the fight-or-flight response. This includes increased heartbeat, rapid breathing, trembling, pale skin and dilated pupils. Our bodies release the hormones that trigger this response whether the threat is real or imaginary.
So, regardless of whether the threat is a rabid dog or a public-speaking event, your body experiences the same strain, both physically and mentally.
The human brain is designed to be resilient and most people are reasonably well equipped to deal with stress, Edelman points out, adding that genes, personality, and early life experiences play an important role in how resilient we are when dealing with stress.
“For instance, someone who is prone to anxiety and has had an unsettled upbringing is likely to be more vulnerable to the effects of stress,” says Edelman, who goes on to highlight another key factor: hope – or more specifically lack of it.
“Most people can adapt to stressful situations as long as they can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Stress can even be mobilising, and therefore helpful, if it’s short-lived and considered manageable,” she adds.
“Things become problematic when we lose hope – when we can’t see the stressful situation ever coming to an end. An unresolved health matter or ongoing financial strain for example.”
Get to the root cause
It can feel impossible to tackle chronic stress, especially if facing feelings of constant overwhelm.
First, stop and take stock. If you’re buckling under too many demands, delegate. If you need emotional support, start talking to your family and friends, or your GP who can refer you to suitable support services.
Put off making any non-essential decisions until you feel clear-headed. Once you feel in a clear frame of mind, try and identify what’s causing you this acute stress and consider whether you need to make some key changes in your life.
There are plenty of everyday things you can do to help reduce stress. A healthy diet and regular exercise are top of the list, plus try to quit, or at least cut down your caffeine and alcohol intake.
Keeping a daily journal can help to identify patterns of behaviour or experiences that leave you feeling stressed. And jotting down five things you feel grateful for everyday fosters gratitude, which is proven to increase our sense of wellbeing.
Meditation is a great way to lower feelings of stress. Just ten minutes a day can help relax the body, clear the mind, and stabilise emotions.
You can find more advice on how to reduce stress here.
If you require immediate support visit Beyond Blue’s Support here.