Stress: finding a balance that works for you
In this article I’m going to be discussing stress – the impact this can have on your health and wellbeing and how you can find a balance between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress. Stress is something that can creep up on us and not be noticed until we start to experience physical health problems. In some environments being seen to be able to cope with high levels of stress can be viewed as a badge of honour. However, over time, this is not a healthy state to be in for any of us. It is very important to be aware of stress because if it is not recognised and managed, it can seriously damage your health and wellbeing.
How often do you stop and take notice of what your stress levels are and whether what you are experiencing is helping you or getting in the way?
What is Stress?
Stress is about how we respond to challenges that we perceive from the world around us. It can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain and is our body’s response to anything that requires our attention or action. How we deal with those challenges and how much stress we experience is very individual.
Our brains have evolved to keep us vigilant and look out for threats from our day to day environment. When a threat is perceived the flight or fight response is triggered. This means that adrenaline and cortisol are released into our bodies, getting us ready to fight or to run away from something we consider as dangerous. Everyone experiences stress to some degree but the way you respond to it makes a big difference to your overall well-being.
Some Stress can be Good
Some stress can be good for you – the short term release of adrenaline and cortisol increases the ability to focus and get things done. However, over time, continuous raised levels of these hormones will cause damage to the body.
If you imagine driving up a hill in a lorry carrying a heavy load, as the hill gets steeper you need to press down harder on the accelerator to generate enough power to keep the lorry going up the hill. If more load is put onto the lorry then it gets even harder. If the lorry runs out of fuel it will stop, or if the accelerator is pushed too hard and for too long it will snap and cause the lorry to either stop or fall back down the hill.
Stress can be like this in the human body. With a small and manageable load it can seem easy to rise to the challenge and some stress is useful as it brings clarity of focus and increases our ability to access long term memories through the hippocampus. However, as the load on us increases and the challenges become greater, stress levels rise and are indicated by increasing levels of cortisol in the body. There may be some physical signs of the stress – such as losing the ability to concentrate, getting irritable with colleagues or feeling tired all the time. At this stage the stress may be tolerable but it is difficult to cope with day to day life. Often at this point it can be managed by reaching out to friends, family and colleagues for support, or perhaps taking some time away from the stress to re-energise.
How often have you booked a longed for holiday and then found that as soon as you relax you get ill? This is a sign of previously living with too much stress.
If the signs of stress are ignored then this is serious and the stress can become toxic. At this point the body is in serious trouble and you may have many physical symptoms, for example poor sleep, mood swings, raised blood pressure, and digestive problems.
Handling the Stress
At Fresh Air Fridays we have many tools which we share with our community that are very helpful in managing the stress we all experience day to day. By regularly practicing these tools it is possible to handle day to day stress. These are simple to learn, such as breathing exercises, taking time to go out for a walk, and being present whilst outside. Come and join us on a free 30 minute Breathing Space session to try out some of these tools and see how practising them can help you handle your stressors.
It’s great to have techniques to hand to manage the day to day stresses we all experience and keep us functioning well. However, long term it is even better to address the pressures which are causing stress to build up in our bodies. In our programmes we help people become aware of what’s really not working in their life and make changes to proactively lead a life they love. Our toolkit includes many topics to support everyone in creating a life that puts personal health and wellbeing at the centre. Those topics include building happy relationships, taking control and habits. Get the toolkit on the ‘Pathways to Happiness’ programmes starting in May to help you or the people on your teams with managing stress.