How stress is hurting you

Stress is a word that seems to have become almost synonymous with modern life.

I remember only too well the feeling of high daily stress four years ago when I worked in a busy medical practice while juggling four young children and exam study. I set my alarm for 4am to study before the kids woke at 5:30. Most nights the toddler would wake me so frequently that I’d press ‘snooze’ repeatedly until it was time to get ready for work. In a sleep-deprived haze, I’d get myself ready, get the kids fed and dressed, and try to resolve the arguments and somehow console children having meltdowns. I’d rush out of the house, always later than I intended. Work would be a frenzy of patients, unexpected emergencies, and mountains of paperwork. Seeing patients would be rewarding, but emotionally and mentally exhausting. I’d forget to eat lunch. I’d stay back at least an hour or two to complete paperwork.

Then I’d rush home to try to see the kids before bed time. I’d walk in the front door to chaos and piles of clutter, and feel overwhelmed at the thought of how I was ever going to find time to do more than the basic tidying and cleaning. After some cuddles, and dinner, and more meltdowns, the kids would start their bedtime routine. Some time around 9:30 or 10 the last child would finally fall asleep. I’d look at my textbooks with exhaustion, and decide to yet again set that alarm for 4am, naively thinking it would work out this time. I’d apologise to all the friends I’d forgotten to contact, or commitments I’d be late with yet again.

I  wanted a pause button I could press. Just a couple of weeks to catch up a bit and get on top of a few things. Maybe even just sit for a minute.

We’re all busy. We spread ourselves thin. We take on all those responsibilities that are expected of us – work, family, commitments at the kids’ school, a committee here and there. When work asks us to stay back late, or take on more responsibility, or work harder, we agree because we feel we have to. On top of all of this, we might be trying to stay healthy – getting some regular exercise, eating nutritious foods, and attempting (but usually failing) to get enough sleep. And then we might actually try to squeeze in some fun – some hobbies, relaxation, or time with friends.

It’s no wonder we’re all stressed when we’re trying to do all of that, week in, week out.

The question is, does it matter? If stress is a ubiquitous part of modern life, is that bad, or do we accept it as the ‘new normal’?

No. It’s not ok. We’re not designed to be stressed all the time. Eventually, there’s a limit to the stress we can endure. We burn out.

As an immediate response, stress creates a cascade of hormone releases and changes in our body. Two of the primary hormones released are adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare our body to manage the threat which has been detected, by either fighting or fleeing. I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘fight or flight response’. To prepare the body, hormones cause increased heart rate and blood pressure, raised breathing rate, release of blood sugar, and extra blood flow to the muscles and brain. This same process occurs regardless of whether the perceived threat is actual immediate physical danger, or an impending meeting, or because you’re running late to work.

What about the effects of stress in the longer-term? We know that stress isn’t simply a fleeting emotional state with no consequence, but rather it affects us mentally, emotionally, physically and behaviourally.

Mental effects

We can find it more difficult to function at work as we struggle to make decisions, feel less motivated, forget things, and become distracted. We worry more, see things more negatively, and may become depressed or anxious over time.

Emotional effects

Stress can leave us overwhelmed, tearful, and feeling that we can’t cope. It leads to irritability, impatience, and anger, which disrupts relationships and causes conflict. This leaves us with a weaker social network to lean upon for support. We begin to lose confidence and self-esteem, which only makes these psychological impacts of stress even worse.

Physical effects

We might become sick more often as stress suppresses our immune system, or an upset digestive system as stress diverts our resources to other parts of the body. As well as feeling tired, we might notice palpitations, a loss of libido, or high blood pressure. Headaches, gain or loss of weight, and muscle tension can also accompany high stress levels.

Behavioural effects

When we’re stressed, we find less time for relaxing or doing things we enjoy. We might start to rely on substances such as alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes, or recreational drugs. We might become a workaholic, or alternatively we might start taking days off work or turning up late. We might struggle with relationships, withdraw socially, have difficulty sleeping, and make more impulsive decisions.

How do you know stress is the cause?

It’s really important to note that the symptoms and signs of stress are varied and non-specific, which means they can have many other potential causes. Please see your doctor if you have any concerns, and particularly if your symptoms persist or worsen after efforts to improve them.

What to do about stress

If you’re experiencing significant stress and noticing some of the symptoms listed above, there is hope!

The first step is identifying the issue, which means looking out for an increase in any of the symptoms and signs I listed above. Often the symptoms start slowly, and gradually increase, so you will need to pay careful attention to notice some of them.

Because it can be difficult to notice these slow-building symptoms, it can be helpful to ask someone who knows you well, and whom you trust, whether they have noticed you behaving any differently to normal. Or even just asking them whether they think you seem stressed. You might be surprised with how obvious these things can be to the people around you!

An assessment such as the Perceived Stress Scale Questionnaire can give a general indication of how much stress may be affecting you. If you are intending to work on reducing your stress levels, then it can be interesting to complete this now and make note of your result, and see if it changes if you redo it in a month or so.

If you’ve identified stress as an issue for you, and you want to do something about it, then where do you start? When managing stress, you want to be doing things that reduce that ‘fight or flight response’. You want those stress hormones to be switched off, and allow the relaxation response to activate. Everyone has a slightly different response to strategies to achieve this, so it’s worth experimenting and taking note of the effect they have on your stress levels.

Some ideas to get you started include:

  • Reducing workload by declining requests or delegating more
  • Altering work schedules
  • Addressing dysfunctional workplace systems that contribute to increased stress
  • Addressing relationships which create stress
  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate duration & quality of sleep
  • Sufficient unscheduled ‘down-time’ during the day
  • Expanding self-compassion
  • Establishing & maintaining social connections
  • Tending to your spiritual life, or your sense of meaning & purpose in the world
  • Psychological strategies such as mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation
  • Addressing contributing factors such as perfectionism, feelings of unworthiness, or a compulsion to over-work.

Writing these things out in a list like this makes them look deceptively simple. Some of these strategies might be easy for you, but others can be quite complex and require professional assistance.

I suggest taking a few days to simple observe times when you feel stressed. You might like to keep a record somewhere, taking note of the circumstances around it and how it made you feel. Expanding your self-awareness in this way gives you valuable insights to guide your strategies to reduce stress. You can look back at the things that are causing you stress, and try to explore what factors contributed to it. Take particular note of any common themes that emerge. Then you can direct your efforts in a very targeted way so that you get the biggest benefit.

Take things slowly. Don’t rush in and try to change ten things at once. Just focus on one area at a time, and observe what happens. Then, if stress levels are still an issue, try another area. If you use a sustainable approach like this then over time these small changes will accumulate to create a big impact.