As humans, we all have a tolerance for managing stress. The terms eustress means stress which is positively managed by the body and mind to beneficial effect. Exciting or stressful events cause a chemical response in the body which gives us a little more energy and drive to do more and to motivate us in our task. Eustress is a helpful and positive product of a nervous system response to challenge. Without eustress, our well-being can actually suffer. It helps us stay motivated, work toward goals, and feel good about life.
Distress and eustress are on either end of the stress spectrum. Unlike eustress, distress can make us feel overwhelmed because our resources, physically, mentally and emotionally, are inadequate to meet the demands we are facing. This kind of negative stress can lead to anxiety, depression and a decrease in performance as well as cardiovascular disease and suppressed immunity, to name but a few.
The key to remaining in healthy balance is knowing when we are tipping from eustress and into distress and how to switch it back to something more manageable.
What causes stress?
All sorts of things can cause stress. A catastrophic event is likely to provoke a level of stress that is easily identified as distress and for which help is invariably sought. Low level stressors can quickly build to unmanageable distress but the tipping of the balance into distress is less easy to identify as it creeps up slowly without warning.
So, where does our stress come from? In 2020, a staggering 79% of British adults in employment commonly experience work-related stress. This is 20% higher than 2018’s findings. 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Other common stressors are money, health concerns, failure to get enough sleep and household and family responsibilities. In 2020, the additional stress of a global pandemic has brought with it an unprecedented level of stressors all at once. Finances, job insecurity, new skillsets, fears about health, restriction from our stress releases, limitations on exercise and curbs on community and family connections are stressors that we have all had to face within an extremely short timescale and with little to no support. These matters are enough to cause distress alone, never mind when layered on top of pre-existing stress. Our resilience has been tested to the limit.
The feeling of stress causes a biological and physiological shift in the bio-chemistry of the body. When we encounter a perceived threat our hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of the brain’s, sets off an alarm system in our body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts our adrenal glands, located near the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. But when stressors are always present and we constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes. It is essential to both short and long term health and to physical and psychological wellbeing to keep stress levels in check.
Why can’t I always recognise harmful stress levels?
One impairment associated with high levels of stress is a sense of detachment or lack of awareness. Ironically, the very time we need to understand our own functioning to identify stress, the stress itself will be most likely shielding us from an awareness of it. So how can we tell when the balance is tipping?
Signs of stress:
Common signs of stress can appear in an emotional, physical, mental, or behavioural presentation. Emotionally, we may become more easily agitated; physically we might feel ill or suffer from insomnia. Behavioural changes can take place too, including a decreased appetite, food cravings or fidgeting. Making bad decisions, having racing thoughts, disorganisation, and forgetfulness are a few of the cognitive signs that we are under too much stress, which needs to be addressed. Persistent low energy and motivation is also a sign that something needs to give.
Lesser well known signs that we need to try and relax include twitching (eye or elsewhere on the face), a sore or dry mouth, or skin issues such as itching or acne. The stress response redirects blood flow away from our normal digestive, nervous and immune system function and sends it to our muscles. This leads to inflammation throughout the whole body, which can cause very significant health issues. Under stress we become much more acutely alert and so creativity and proper contemplation become more challenging, too. Nerve fibres are aggravated causing a range of unusual physical sensations.
Sometimes, our behaviour offers a real insight into our true feelings and these signs tend to be the ones that creep up and build without us really noticing or associating it with stress. Increased dependance upon alcohol, comfort eating or compulsive spending can actually be signs of stress, too.
So, whether it is an unusual rash, a craving for comfort food, or headaches, if any unusual symptom begins to appear persistently it should not be ignored. These warnings can be signs of larger health problems to come, making it so important, now more than ever, that we are aware of the different ways our bodies are telling us to take a step back, and try to relax.
Ten ways to deal with stress:
1. Recognise signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol, and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy and make time to address these. They won’t go away on their own;
2. Try to build a social support system whether it be friends, family or a social or religious group. Identify what keeps you stress-free and stay in touch with those people;
3. Do not take on more than you can handle. Doing so can be a huge component to chronic stress. Be sure to say a firm NO to what you cannot handle and prioritise tasks. Making a to-do list with clear priorities is a great way to organise the day ahead. By completing the list the night before, sleep often comes easier, too;
4. Studies have found that exercising regularly is a great way to reduce stress. In fact, just 30 minutes of activity a day can help your mood and stress levels courtesy of the post-exercise endorphin rush. Exercise is also likely to encourage better and healthier decision making around food and alcohol consumption also. Exercise doesn’t have to be taxing or exhausting – anything that increases the heart rate, including walking, is positive step in the right direction;
5. Candles and aromatherapy can help reduce stress levels. Not all scents are made alike and essential oil blends mixed specifically for stress are readily available. Lavender is one scent that is consistently associated with reducing stress;
6. There are many activities that help ward off stress including yoga, meditation and tai chi. Forming a habit of engaging in such stress-reducing activities will reduce stress levels immediately and help to keep damaging stress build-up at bay;
7. Make changes to your environment to create a calm and peaceful place to be. Being surrounded by chaos has been proven to increase stress levels and it will also make you feel disorganised and overwhelmed. If at all possible, get outside! Our natural molecular vibration adjusts to our environment and nature in this sense really does provide the very best medicine. Shinrin-yoku, the practice of forest bathing popular in Japan, has its origins in demonstrated impact upon health and wellbeing. If you can’t get outside, bring it inside with a selection of plants which studies have found can reduce tension by up to 40%. Recommended plants for stress reduction include Monstera, Devil’s Ivy, Asparagus Fern, Dracaena or Aeschynanthus.
8. Laughter may really be amongst the best medicine when it comes to stress. Studies have found that laughing is a great way to eliminate the physical effects of stress and anxiety.
9. One study has found that drinking black tea can lower post-stress cortisol levels and help you relax. Selenium, L-theanine (contained in green tea), Ashwagandha and Vitamin B-complex are supplements all regularly associated with lower stress levels. Food sources of B vitamins include grains, meats, legumes, eggs, dairy products, and leafy greens. Other stress busting foods include brazil nuts, fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, and herring), pumpkin seeds, and chamomile. Turmeric is great for reducing inflammation associated with stress.
10. Sleep is key to restoration and recovery in every sense and stress reduction is no exception. Studies have found that good sleep patterns, supplemented by taking naps if necessary, can reduce cortisol levels. Good restorative sleep can also help with management of the symptoms of stress such as irritability, cravings and low mood. Promotion of a bedtime routine for children to sleep well is no coincidence. Make sure your body and mind know that they are being prepared for a restful night’s sleep by having a regular bedtime, avoid strenuous or stressful activity 2-3 hours before bedtime, avoid screens and blue light (which disrupts circadian rhythm) at least an hour before bedtime and if a bath is possible, add epsom salts for a deep restful night’s sleep, too. Planning the following day and list making can help reduce worry also.
More than anything else, it is important to recognise that stress really can be a silent killer. It can attack us physically and emotionally and should not be underestimated. If changes to lifestyle and habits are unable to break the stress cycle, a mental health professional can and will help. Think about it as a persistent cough – if it can’t be shifted with the usual remedies, a trip to the Doc is in order. If stress is left untreated over a number of weeks or has led to thoughts of hopelessness or self harm or perhaps created a reliance upon alcohol or drugs, then a mental health care provider is a must. Stress can lead to longer term mental health issues and it is always much better to try to intervene and address this before it becomes more deeply ingrained and therefore more challenging to manage.