Stress 101

Written By Ariel Landrum, LMFT, ATR

What is stress?

A stressful situation, whether environmental or psychological, can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological responses. A stressful incident can make your heart pound faster, your breathing quickens, and your muscles tense. This mix of reactions is also known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This survival mechanism enables humans, and other mammals, to respond instantly to life-threatening situations. Essentially, when you face a perceived threat, hormones race through your body to help you either confront the threat (fight) or avoid it (flight or freeze).

The fight, flight, or freeze response is activated by stress. Stress is loosely defined as ‘“the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response.” You are probably already familiar with the ways your body reacts under stress. Maybe your palms get sweaty, your knees get weak, and your arms get heavy (mom’s spaghetti). These reactions are aimed at helping you respond to a perceived threat.

The body was designed for stress. Stress can be very helpful. It may be what pushes you toward meeting an important deadline. There is even positive stress, such as the overwhelming emotions felt when you receive a promotion or have a baby.

Unfortunately, this carefully orchestrated system can activate when non-life-threatening situations occur. Situations like traffic, work pressure, or family difficulties. When stress is chronic (occurring over longer periods of time without relief) it can be harmful to your physical and mental health.

Who experiences stress?

Stress is unavoidable. Our bodies are hot-wired to experience it. And as it isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t need to go away. Everyone experiences it in all phases of life.

There are common sources of stress, such as work demands, family, and school. These stressors are expected, and if we’re managing stress in a healthy way we are able to learn and develop coping skills that allow us to build resilience towards these stressors. If not, these common stressors can lead to chronic stress, as they affect us daily. When we believe we are not capable of handling these daily stressors, or we know they are out of our control, we develop chronic stress.

Then there are unexpected stressors, such as losing a job, breaking up with a partner, or contracting a serious illness. These are stressors that we aren’t really able to prepare for. Some may be expected, but often, until the event occurs, we do not accept what is happening to us. These are situations that can often build feelings of denial, shame, and regret. These adverse feelings then increase feelings of stress, until an unhealthy circular pattern of pain grows.

Finally, there are traumatic stressors, such as surviving a natural disaster, sexual assault, or hate crime. These stressors are most often completely unexpected. Traumatic stressors wholly change everything about who we are, and therefore are the hardest to address. There are individuals who have natural resiliency, who can handle the shock of traumatic stress, but almost everyone who experiences this painful form of stress has to utilize a wide variety of coping skills. Often, if untreated, traumatic stressors can lead to detrimental physical and mental health complications.

When is stress harmful?

Stress experienced for long periods of time, or chronic stress, is the most harmful. It prevents you from being able to manage unexpected and/or traumatic stress, as you have not fully healed from common stress.

Any prolonged activation of the fight-flight-freeze response causes both physical and emotional breakdown.

  • Physical symptoms can include:
    • decreased immune system
    • irritable bowel syndrome
    • migraines
    • muscle tension
    • chest pain
    • sexual dysfunction
    • sleep deprivation
  • Emotional symptoms can include:
    • anxiety
    • irritability
    • difficulty concentrating
    • panic attacks
    • depression
    • negative sense of self
    • crying spells

Chronic stress can take a toll on you. You might feel tension in your shoulders, or be prone to headaches. You may find that even though you’re exhausted, you still toss and turn at night. These sensations may cause you to skip working out, avoid your support system, or even reach for unhealthy coping mechanisms like junk food or alcohol. Over time, it can contribute to serious health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and mental disorders. Research shows that stress is linked to 6 of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

What are the warning signs of chronic stress?

Chronic stress will wear down the body’s natural defense system, which will increase somatic and physical illness. Below are the warning signs that chronic stress may be affecting your life:

  • Dizziness or a feeling of “being out of it”
  • General aches and pains
  • Grinding teeth, clenched jaw
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion or acid reflux symptoms
  • Increase in or loss of appetite
  • Muscle tension in neck, face or shoulders
  • Problems sleeping
  • Racing heart
  • Cold and sweaty palms
  • Tiredness, exhaustion
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Upset stomach, diarrhea

Are you reading these symptoms and nodding? Were you reading the list hoping to not find one warning sign of chronic stress? Well, there’s good news: recognizing that you are stressed is the first step to being able to manage it. Often we are unaware that we are stressed. It is worse for anyone feeling chronic stress, because it has become their “new normal”. Their body’s homeostasis is always at a heightened state.

Once you have been able to address your warning signs, you can now start making habitual changes which will allow you to manage your stress.

When should I address stress?

It is important that you learn to tackle stress in the moment. When you notice your warning signs occurring, that is the time to start managing them. Waiting will only increase your adverse symptoms.

When you notice your warning signs, stop what you’re doing and:

  • Get mindful. Move your attention to your breath.  Count out a two-second inhale, and a four-second exhale. Focus on your breathing, and take it slow and steady. Though “breathing” may sound silly, it is the body’s way of activating the psychological response of calm: the parasympathetic nervous system (essentially the opposite of fight, flight, freeze).
  • Self-talk. Learn and practice kind self-talk. When you notice your warning signs for stress, use your inner voice to speak calmly and positively to yourself. Learn affirmations, such as “this is only temporary,” “I am in control,” or “I am secure, safe, and strong.” Reminding yourself that you do not need your body to respond strongly will literally be telling yourself that you’re okay.
  • Call someone. Look to your support network. You probably have family, friends, colleagues, or spiritual leaders whom you trust. Reach out to them and try venting. Ask their advice to gain a new perspective. When you learn how to express your emotions, you have a better understanding of what triggers you, what you are reactive to, and what you are complacent to. This will make it easier for you to learn to manage your emotions.
  • Drink water. Stress is actually a hormone – cortisol. The second fastest way to remove a hormone from the body (the first being deep breathing), is through natural digestion. If, when you notice you are becoming stressed, you begin to sip water, you will eventually go to the bathroom and release stress naturally.

SOURCE: https://www.guidancett.com/blog/stress-101-2020

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