Stress – one of the most common mental health problems today – is something, to lesser or greater degrees, that we all endure. Triggered by either everyday issues or by one-off life events such as bereavement or getting divorced, the list of things that might cause stress is non-exhaustive. This post looks at the causes of stress and asks if stress management counselling can help.
Stress, we should remember, is not all negative. Occasionally it acts a positive force, kicking us into action and motivating us to do well in the world. Being able to cope with a certain level of stress is normal. There are even times when we will thrive on an appropriately balanced amount of it. Stress challenges us, keeping us focused and alert, enabling us to reach our potential.
In small doses stress is easily tolerated, but when things get out of hand the consequences – both emotional and physical – can be detrimental. Prolonged or intense stress levels will negatively impact and usually affect other aspects of our life, such as our relationships or work life. This may have the knock effect of causing anxiety or depression, causing even more stress. Before we know it we have found ourselves in a negative feedback loop.
Stress, though it can feel emotional, is a physical reaction caused by the release of hormones. When we come under pressure in the external world our brain produces extra adrenaline and cortisol. This surge of hormones – part of the fight-flight response – is a neuro-chemical reaction evolutionarily designed to help us deal with threats. Once the activating event has passed our hormone levels should return to normal allowing our body to move from fight-flight mode into its more natural rest-and-digest state.
However, when the physical response doesn’t go away, i.e. when cortisol and adrenaline remain in our system, stress becomes a problem. We continue feeling stressed even though there is nothing in our environment to cause us any real harm. Our fight-flight response, designed to help us run from saber-tooth tigers, has gone into overload. Over a prolonged period the continued presence of these hormones will lead to an outbreak of stress related symptoms. This imbalance eventually undermines our well-being and corrodes our quality of life.
Anything that causes stress is known as a ‘stressor’, of which there are two types; external and internal.
An external stressor is any external life event. Obvious examples might be financial worries, health concerns, or one off events such as death; objectively negative events. But a stressor needn’t necessarily be negative; it could be an event we generally think of as positive. An example of a positive stressor could be getting married or a receiving a promotion at work. Either of these events, for whatever reason, might cause us a great deal of stress.
There are also ‘internal stressors’. These are the things we worry about privately; the internal anxieties of our minds. They don’t involve any real external situation; instead they are fantasy scenarios or perhaps our negative approaches to dealing with life. An example might be somebody getting anxious about an upcoming airplane journey. This fear has some basis in reality; hurtling through the air in a tin can at hundreds of miles per hour is hardly natural after all. However, because statistically speaking there is every likelihood the plane will take off and land safely, such stress is largely unfounded.
Stress means different things to different people. Life events that are water off a duck’s back to one individual can cause severe stress in another.
Some people find high stress levels are something they enjoy, even thrive upon. For another individual, the smallest stressor – something you or I find completely inconsequential – can keep them awake for days on end. Conversely, this individual wouldn’t bat an eyelid at something that feels intensely stressful to us. The individual causes of and reactions to stress are a very subjective experience.
Our personal history, our level of resilience and our innate constitution will determine what causes us to feel stressed. This will be down to a multitude of factors including the level of our connection with – and ability to handle – our emotions. Other factors would include the size and strength of our support network. Our understanding of our individual stressors will also affect how we each react to stressful situations.
Inability to cope with stress has a negative impact on our physical and mental health. Going from being occasionally in stress response to being in stress response most of the time, wreaks havoc on the body. Not only do we feel constantly harried and overwhelmed, but physical symptoms soon become all too apparent.
These symptoms include, but are not limited to, the eruption of skin disorders such as eczema, and IBS or other digestive problems, headaches, muscular tension, high blood pressure and other bodily aches and pains. Long-term some of these symptoms can lead to a deterioration of physical health, again creating a negative feedback-loop. If we’re unable to work due to ill health, for example, the loss of earnings has a knock on effect.
Besides the physical symptoms of stress, there are any number pf psychological symptoms that could affect us. These include irritability, problems concentrating, excessive worry, trouble sleeping, lack of motivation, loss of libido, and social withdrawal and mood swings. Again these symptoms can create a negative feedback loop.
It is often difficult to know, until it is too late, when stress levels have tipped the scales. Stress often creeps up unawares. This is in part because we’ve become used to high stress levels and don’t realise the impact until we reach crisis point. Like a slow cooked frog, we don’t realise we’re stressed until the pot is boiling over Therefore self-care is fundamental and it is essential that we look after ourselves consistently; not just when we’re stressed! If we can’t manage ourselves how can we manage all the other components of our busy lives?
The following (non-exhaustive list) are some tips to help manage stress. Perhaps cliché, this type of self-care is fundamental to stress management and should constitute a baseline in terms of coping skills.
It’s not important what sort of exercise you do, just make sure to move your body. The resultant release of feel-good hormones is better than antidepressants according to some studies.
At least once a day find some time – consider it a date with yourself – to do something which relaxes you. It could be listening to your favourite album (without checking your phone every two minutes). It might be running a warm bath and using those salts you bought while standing in the queue in TK Maxx. Or it could simply be taking a walk in the local park. Whatever it is, find some activity that resources and replenishes you and then make the time to indulge yourself.
We may try to increase our productivity time by getting less sleep, but a cost-benefit analysis will reveal the value of consistent quality sleep. More relaxed, the quality of our productivity will more than make up reduced quantity of hours awake. Never take your phone or laptop to bed as the back-light delays the release of melatonin, an essential sleep hormone. Instead wind down with a book or some relaxing music, for at least an hour before bedtime. Get seven hours of sleep minimum. Watch this podcast to learn everything you ever wanted to know about sleep.
We often reach for caffeine, or sugary drinks and foods as these give us a boost when we feel stressed. However, they only provide a ‘fake’ spike of energy which lasts only a short while. The inevitable crash leaves us even more depleted and so naturally we reach for another hit of sugar or caffeine. This cycle then repeats. Find a healthier, more sustainable diet that works for you and see what difference it makes to your stress levels.
Connecting with friends or relatives – with those we love at least – can be soothing and relaxing. Stress tends to dissipate when socialising so allow your relationships to become a source of relaxation and comfort for you.
The best medicine of all. If you have 20 minutes to spare, try this. Perhaps not at the office though!
Counselling is a safe, confidential space where you can speak openly and freely about the issues causing you stress. Counselling allows you to gain a new perspective on the stress and the people or situations causing it. This perspective allows you then to identify which aspects of your life and/or behaviour you need to change.
Stress management counselling addresses the cause of your stress and helps develop essential skills in managing your time, energy, thoughts and emotions. There are different approaches to this. Some therapists emphasise identifying the triggers or root cause of your stress, including those created by past family experiences. In doing so you get a chance to explore why certain situations or scenarios trigger you. By removing the root, the weed will wither away. Other therapists might focus on techniques to help you to minimise your response to a given situation and teach you to develop the skills to prevent excessive stress returning in the future. I generally opt for the first approach, but am not immune to the second where applicable.
Both approaches help sufferers manage their stress levels more effectively, reducing the negative impact of stress on an individual’s life. Whilst stress cannot be removed from our lives entirely, it is possible to learn step by step techniques that minimize the impact of stress in our day to day life. Attending stress management counselling is often the first step in dealing with the problem. By better understanding it, we can begin to take control of stress rather than stress controlling us.