Stress gets such a bad name. Sometimes it is deserved, but sometimes it's not. I wanna talk about what stress is. How it becomes chronic, long lasting. How affects us emotionally, physically, and behaviourally. And what we can start to do to address it?
Essentially stress is the impact of too much mental, physical, or emotional pressure for the resources available. This explains why we may face the same situation on different days and feel more or less stressed by it.
If we receive a call to say our child is unwell and we haven’t had a good night’s sleep, the internet crashed before you saved the project you were working on and you forgot to get something out of the freezer for tea, then we may have the thought ‘anything thing else today?’ whilst feeling annoyed and noticing our jaw clench and our shoulder rise toward our ears.
However, if we have had a good night’s sleep and everything so far that day has gone to plan, when you get a phone call to say your child is unwell you are able to cope with arranging someone to cover at work. You can pick them up from school and give them emotional support and empathy without feeling any negative emotions, feeling tension in your body, or thinking anything of it.
So, it depends on the situation, but also how you perceive stress.
It can be how you perceive stress that does more damage than how potent it is. Dr Kelly McGonigal found that by thinking about stress when facing a challenge people are able to eliminate the negative effects of stress on the body and mind. So, by not acknowledging that a situation is stressful, or that we might be stressed, we are likely to do more harm than good. That is worth bearing in mind.
Also, how we experience stress depends on what type it is. Did you know not all stress is bad?
There are different types of stress. Distress is uncomfortable and unpleasant. We act to avoid or alleviate it, if we can. Eustress is healthy. It is helpful and can spur us on. Motivate us. Give us strength and perseverance in times of challenge.
If we believe that something is going to be difficult our mind and body start to prepare us for that. We feel our muscles tense. Our breathing and heart rate quicken, and our mind focuses on the object of the challenge. Which could be an internal or external event.
It could be the car is broken down and we need to get to work.
Or it might be that I have a headache again, and we’re thinking it could get worse and prevent us from working today.
Either way, our attention is drawn to the focus of the stress. We see it as a problem to be solved. In some situations, this is very useful.
If the car has really broken down and you need to get to work for a certain time. Being focused on the issue is exactly what you need to do. It enables you to consider options and to choose the most suitable.
However, if the issue is not a problem to be solved, focusing on the issue adds to the stress.
It is something that we can all do sometimes. It costs valuable time, energy and emotion trying to solve the unsolvable. (Is unsolvable a word? I think I might have made that up.)
A headache is not a problem to be solved.
A headache is a common human experience. Granted, if you have an unusual series of headaches, or they become more common or painful. Or you have a sudden onset of an excruciatingly painful headache. In other words – if the headache is unusual for you. Then it would be advisable to seek some medical advice. But if you have a ‘normal for you’ headache, then is unlikely to be a problem to be solved.
If we can learn not to try to solve it, but just recognise it as a stressful event (as suggested by Dr McGonigal) the stress will be released, and the headache will start to dissipate.
Granted, easier said than done. But it is possible. It’s what I teach my clients to do every day.
We all have stressful events occur. But if we have continuous stressful events over a period of time, we can become accustomed to problem solving.
We get into that headspace, and it becomes our default way of thinking. Just about everything is seen as a problem to be solved. (Ever thought of yourself as over-analytical?)
The longer that stress goes on unchecked, the longer the habit of trying to solve the problem of stress continues, and the more ingrained the thought process becomes.
If someone had a stressful childhood, maybe they took on responsibility for a sibling, or worried about an unwell parent, they can start this way of thinking early on. Then every time they take on responsibility, or someone else s ill, they will experience that stress response. But they will not recognise it as stress. It will feel normal to them. It’s all they have ever known, physically, emotionally, and in their way of thinking. They would have felt it so frequently and for so long. When they find they can't solve it, the stress builds and builds, and they experience more physical symptoms themselves.
At first these may seem minor aches and pains, often digestive or stomach complaints. Then maybe headaches. Later years, with more stressful events in their life, they develop an anxiety disorder. Then later still, their body, so used to cortisol by now that it is unable to regulate it properly, they receive a diagnosis of an autoimmune condition.
I've spent years studying and working with clients who have followed this trajectory. I followed it myself. I know it well. If I had continued, I'd probably retired on medical grounds by now. And be living a miserable, lonely life.
Instead, I recognised that we don't have to be a slave to this pattern of thinking. There is a there is hope and healing.
I have developed a way to help people move through from tension in their bodies and rigidity in their thinking to flexibility and freedom. To learning how to trust what they think and feel. To trust their bodies to heal. To quieten their minds knowing when to problem solve and when not. To learn the process to be able to let go of chronic stress. To meet the world as it is, and to find the true version of themselves. Because the stressed version of yourself is not truly who you are.
I also invite you to take the Stress Illness Quiz to see whether you may need to stop problem solving everything and start addressing your stress differently.