Managing Stress: Feeling Under Pressure

Too much stress takes its toll on our emotional and physical health. But understanding our own stress patterns and how we respond when we’re under pressure is a good first step towards getting our lives back in control.

Stress seems to be part and parcel of modern life. There’s the stress of living in today’s fast-paced society, the stress of work (or being out of work) and of fighting your way through rush hour traffic. There’s the stress of demanding children (especially if you’re bring them up alone) or caring for ailing and elderly relatives. Then there are financial worries, social pressures, living up to the expectations of others (and ourselves), relationship difficulties… the list is endless. They all make demands on our mental and physical resources – and sometimes that’s fine. It’s when these demands feel more than we can cope with that we become stressed. But equally, stress can also be caused by a lack of stimulation and challenge. Think of lions and tigers endlessly pacing backwards and forwards at the zoo. Boredom and frustration – a feeling of being unable to fulfil our potential – can also be extremely stressful.

Stress monitor
If you’re stressed, you may find yourself struggling to concentrate or make simple decisions, feel easily distracted and under confident. Your sleep may suffer – and you may be irritable, tearful and defensive. Or you may find yourself flying off the handle or being uncharacteristically aggressive. Being stressed out can affect you physically too, causing minor ailments such as headaches, indigestion or frequent infections or colds. At its extreme, it can even lead to serious health problems, such as ulcers, heart attacks and stroke. And stress can cause – or make worse – mental health problems like panic attacks, anxiety and depression.

Inside story
Feeling under stress can make you feel a range of emotions:

  • ‘I kept blowing my top – with friends, even at people in the street, for almost no reason.’
  • ‘I couldn’t make the simplest decision – even what to put on in the morning.’
  • ‘My boss kept on piling on the work and that it all had to be done by yesterday… I felt I just wasn’t up to the job, that I was a failure.’

But stress isn’t all bad: a little or moderate amount can be a positive thing. It can make you feel excited, creative and more productive. It can help you rise to a challenge. For example, in a job interview, the stress hormones your body produces can actually make you more alert and help you perform better (‘as soon as I’m in there, I can feel the adrenalin pumping and I’m on a roll’). Some people enjoy the huge buzz – the adrenaline rush – that they get from the stress of taking part in extreme sports or other high risk activities. But if you have too much stress, or for too long, it stops being beneficial. So why, and how, do our bodies react to stress?

The stress response
The physical and mental changes we experience when we’re under stress, the ‘stress response’, evolved as a way of dealing with life-threatening situations: like coming face to face with a wild animal. Within seconds, our ancestors had to decide whether to stay and fight it – or run away – and their bodies produced the hormones to prepare it for either. Our bodies still go into this ‘fight or flight’ mode when we’re faced with a threat or challenge, real or imaginary – whether that’s reacting quickly in a potential road accident, being under pressure from your boss to meet a deadline – or feeling trapped in a dead-end job.

Action stations
Within seconds of sensing a threatening situation, your body releases adrenaline and noradrenaline to increase your blood pressure and heart rate to get oxygen and fuel-filled blood to the brain, muscles, heart and lungs – so you’re physically strong and ready to protect yourself. That’s why your heart races when you’re stressed – and why stress can increase the risk of heart problems and stroke. There’s less blood going to the skin, digestive system and kidneys – so you may feel cold and have stomach ‘butterflies’. ‘It got to the stage that the slightest thing would set me off.’ Noradrenalin sharpens your senses so you’re more alert, causing tensing of the facial muscles, clenching of the teeth and your hair to stand more on end (‘goose pimples’) to make you look more aggressive. Cortisol converts fat stores into energy to power the muscles. But too much cortisol can weaken your immune system – which is why people suffering from chronic stress get a lot of colds and infections.

Turn it on; turn it off
The trouble is, that the more often the stress response is turned on, the easier it is for it to flick on the next time – and the harder it is to switch it off. And if these hormones are released too often, then they start to cause you harm. Lia had been in a rocky relationship for about a year: ‘It was really doing my head in… it got to the stage that the slightest thing would set me off, I was constantly in a state of high anxiety, with a pounding heart, a tight band around my head, I felt as if I had an internal motor running on overdrive… and by the end of the year I’d developed an ulcer.’

Common triggers
Anything that activates the stress response is called a ‘stressor’. These stressors are often negative – but anything that makes demands on you or requires you to make some adjustments in your life can be a stressor. For example, in a list of the most common stressful life events compiled by US researchers, getting married and reconciliation with a partner were up there, along with the death of a spouse, being fired or sent to prison. ‘Almost without you realizing, the demands on you start to exceed your ability to cope.’ Sometimes, the source of the stress can’t necessarily be traced back to one particular event – it’s just the build-up of a lot of everyday pressures. Almost without you realizing, the demands on you start to exceed your ability to cope – and before you know it you’re really stressed out. Stress overload can also happen when you have to deal with a number of stressful situations or events occurring too close together, for example, you’re going through a relationship break up and then you lose your job. And our relationships with others – whether it’s family, friends or work colleagues – are a great source of potential stress because they are so closely bound up with our self-image and ideas of self-worth. But as well as external events, what goes on inside your own head can create stress too. Having unrealistic expectations, a negative outlook, being unable to accept uncertainty or being a perfectionist can cause you to put yourself under a lot of pressure. Some people whom psychologists call Type A personalities – often competitive workaholics, who rush everywhere and find it difficult to slow down or relax – create stress for themselves by overreacting to challenges and threats that don’t actually exist.

All in the mind
It’s important to remember that it’s how we perceive these stressors or demands – and equally how we perceive our own ability to cope with them – that affects our bodies’ ‘flight or fight’ response and determines whether we feel stressed or unstressed. ‘What is stress overload for one person, another may thrive on’. What causes stress in one person may leave someone else relatively unphased. For example, Jon’s partner would get really angry in traffic jams: ‘She’d shout at the traffic, the other drivers, at me, at herself for taking that particular route or not setting off earlier… while I’d feel quite laid back about it. I knew I couldn’t do anything about it, so I’d put some music on and sit it out. It got to her in a way it never did for me.’

How much is too much?
There’s no hard and fast rule about how much stress is healthy – what is overload for one person, another may thrive on. Factors that influence how well you tolerate stress include:

  • Having a good support network.
  • Believing you have some control over your life.
  • Being optimistic.
  • Being able to deal with your own emotions.
  • Knowing and understanding as much as possible about the stressful situation.

Because it’s so individual, it’s important to recognize your own limits – when the stress you’re under is too much for you – rather than judging yourself against other people.

What you can do
The first thing is to recognize the warning signs of stress and the second is to accept that you need to do something about it. However much your life feels like it’s spiraling out of control, there is plenty you can do to reduce your stress levels. You can:
Think about what’s causing the stress – and how you respond to it.

Take steps to prevent or cut down on stress.
Understand how your mindset affects how you deal with potentially stressful situations or people.
Develop healthy ways to deal with stress.

Next Steps
Learn more about Togetherall and the power of connecting with others who understand. 

Read more
Managing Stress by Terry Looker and Olga Gregson (Teach Yourself, 2008)
The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman and Matthew McKay (New Harbinger Publications, 2008)

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