What is Stress?
Stress is our body’s response to the perceived pressures caused by an event or a situation. We call these events or situations ‘stressors’, and a stressor for one person might not necessarily be a stressor for someone else.
Typical stressors might include things that make us feel overwhelmed or challenge our capacity to cope. They might be unexpected things, or things that cause us to have negative beliefs about ourselves, or that reinforce existing beliefs and self-judgement.
When we have a stress response, our body produces cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline which are stress hormones, and this puts our nervous system into its ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.
This gets us ready for battle (or for running away or hiding!) by increasing our heart rate, speeding up our breathing, and releasing sugars into our blood to give us immediately-available energy. It also makes our pupils dilate and our brains become hyper-vigilant to scan for danger, and it sends signals to our immune system to prepare for potential injury. It also shuts down ‘non-essential’ bodily functions such as digestion and libido, whilst it concentrates on the primary focus of survival.
Why does Stress Happen?
Not all stress is bad, in fact it can be pretty useful for protecting us from danger.
Our stress response has existed for millions of years and was really useful when we were cave-dwellers who frequently ran the risk of being eaten by a wild animal.
Having our nervous system switch into ‘Fight, flight or freeze’ was exactly what we needed to help us confront this extreme danger. And then when the danger had passed, our stress response would stop, and our nervous system could revert back to the much calmer ‘rest and digest’ state.
The problem we have now is this: our stress response has never changed. There is only one physiological stress response and this is it. The heart-pounding, fast-breathing, sweaty-palmed, red mist of stress is the same whether you are having a run-in with a lion on the Serengeti, or whether you just forgot to pay the bills / you’re late submitting that report at work / that it is world book day at your child’s school today and you have to create a whole outfit in less than ten minutes.
Rangan Chatterjee in his book ‘The Stress Solution’ coined the phrase ‘Micro Stress Doses’ to describe the unfathomable number of small-but-impactful stressors we now encounter in a typical day. These MSDs can come from anywhere and anything, and you could be experiencing hundreds in just one day.
And chronic stress occurs when our cortisol response just gets left switched on, so we are in a perpetual state of stress.
So when you think about the number of times in a day when we experience stress triggers, compared with our caveman friend, whilst having exactly the same physiological response, it is unsurprising that we have a stress epidemic on our hands.
What’s so bad about stress?
Stress every once in a while is unlikely to cause any major problems, but when we experience stress frequently and feel overwhelmed by it, it can lead to other health problems:
Physical symptoms that we often just put up with: insomnia, headaches, migraines, skin complaints, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhoea, muscle tension
Mental health conditions: anxiety, depression, OCD, burnout
Long term physical health conditions: high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer's
Just How Stressed Are We?
The YouGov UK Stress Report, published in 2018*, uncovered some worrying trends:
In the past year, 74% of people felt so stressed they were left feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope.
46% reported that they ate too much or ate unhealthily due to stress. 29% reported that they started drinking or increased their drinking, and 16% reported that they started smoking or increased their smoking.
51% of adults who felt stressed reported feeling depressed, and 61% reported feeling anxious.
And according to Dr. Rangan Chatterjee in his book: The Stress Solution’: “It’s thought that between 60 and 80% of GP consultations are related to Stress.”**
What are Some Common Stress Triggers?
All sorts of things can cause us to feel stressed, and in our 21st century lives we are experiencing new ones all the time.
For many, the dream of ‘having it all’, means trying to run a successful career and raise well-adjusted children. Add to that the fact that we are now living longer lives, which means that many people have to juggle the stress of parenting with that of looking after elderly dependents.
Working hours are increasing and technology is making us more available to our bosses and colleagues, blurring the lines between work and home-life.
And when we do get some down-time, we often spend much of it browsing social media, where there are other sources of stress – cyber-bullying, trolling, comparing ourselves to the airbrushed lives of our friends and acquaintances… the list goes on and on.
Gallery of Past Workshops
14th May 2019: Stress Resilience workshop at women in banking and finance (wibf), birmingham
16th May 2019: courageous conversations workshop at govia thameslink railway, london
29th june 2019: Stress management and building Resilience workshop at akarmalife yoga studio, Bedfordshire
*The Mental Health Foundation's 2018 study: The study was an online poll undertaken by YouGov, and had a sample size of 4,619 respondents. This is the largest known study of stress levels in the UK.
**“The Stress Solution” by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee