Understanding the signs of stress

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Stress… It’s a word on everybody’s lips these days, isn’t it?

It’s something we all tend to experience from time to time and, often a small amount of stress can drive us to get things done as long as it is harnessed in the right way. In many ways, stress is just a necessary part of life.

However, what happens when we’re no longer to harness stress to our advantage? What happens when that feeling of stress becomes all-encompassing? What happens when it feels out of control? That’s the time when we need to recognise that it’s time to seek help.

With April being Stress Awareness Month, we wanted to do a deep dive into the complex issue of stress. We’ll look at the impact it can have on us, what it can do to our body, what the main causes are and offer some tips and strategies to reduce and alleviate it.

The impact of stress: Mind

A recent study on the impact of stress and mental health as a result of the pandemic showed that a staggering 65% of people in the UK felt more stressed since the COVID-19 restrictions began in March 2020. This is certainly a massive uptick and very worrying.

Too much stress can affect our mood, our mental health and our relationships. It can make us feel anxious, on edge, irritable, and affect our self-esteem too. When we are stressed, we may find ourselves starting to withdraw from those around us. Often in this situation, the things that we find ‘pleasurable’ end up going to the bottom of the pile. But the key thing to remember, is that it’s those more pleasurable activities that allow us the breathing space we need to switch off from the stressors and ultimately recharge our batteries.

The impact of stress: Body

Stress can also have a big impact on how we feel physically, too. This is because stress triggers our fight or flight response, which is our body’s natural alarm system to danger.

When we feel threatened, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol). These get the body ready for emergency action so that we can increase our strength and stamina, enhance our focus and ensure we’re prepared to fight – or indeed flee – the danger ahead.

Here are five signs that our body is reacting to stress:

  1. Heart beat: When we experience stress, our heart beats quicker. This is mainly to pump our blood and oxygen to our arms and legs to either fight or run away;
  2. Breathing: Our breathing rate increases when we are stressed to take in more oxygen to build up a store of extra energy ready to fight or run away;
  3. Nausea: Our body wants to get rid of anything likely to slow us down as this might slow our survival. The body is prioritising fighting and flight, and as such our digestive system is no longer a priority;
  4. Light-headedness: When under intense stress, all the blood rushes from our head to our limbs to prioritise what is needed for survival;
  5. Tension: Our muscles are preparing to fight or run away.

In today’s world we are (fortunately) rarely faced with physical threats, and rather it’s a ‘hypothetical’ threat in the form of stress that triggers these reactions. Yet, that being said, as a result of human nature our bodies still tend to react in the same way, resulting in many of us feeling light headed, dry mouthed and with our heart racing. But what can be done?

The key to avoiding this reaction is to train our bodies to learn that these stressors do not need the aid of our flight or fight response, so that we can wind down the physical effects and manage the stress better.

There are various ways we can manage the physical symptoms of stress, for instance taking to exercise to burn off that extra energy, breathing exercises to induce calm and get rid of that excess oxygen and also mindfulness practices to help us focus on the present.

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