We all experience stress in our lives. Some stress is actually good for us, as it can motivate us to get up in the morning and can drive us to perform well. However, too much stress can be unhelpful and can lead to the following:
Emotions: anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, depression, fear, nervousness, guilt, frustration, anger, irritability
Physical sensations: increase in heart rate, palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, tension, pain, tiredness, butterflies in stomach, poor sleep
Thoughts: difficulties concentrating, poor memory, racing thoughts, self-critical thoughts e.g., “I can’t cope”, “I’m losing control”.
Behaviour: rushing, difficulties stopping and relaxing, procrastinating, being irritable with others, drinking and smoking more than usual, eating more or less than usual, making mistakes, avoiding people and/or situations
If you are experiencing high stress levels you may be experiencing some of the above signs. You may not experience all of the signs as stress affects each person differently.
What Causes Stress?
Stress is caused when we feel a sense of pressure and we feel we are struggling to meet the demands upon us. This situation is threatening to us and as a result our body goes into ‘survival’ mode otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ mode. During the ‘fight or flight’ mode our body goes through changes to prepare us to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ (run away). These bodily changes are those that are described above i.e. increase in heart rate, palpitations, shortness of breath etc. This is helpful to us when we experience a physical threat, such as if a person is coming towards us and is threatening to attack us. However, the ‘fight or flight’ mode also occurs when we perceive there to be a threat to our psychological wellbeing, such as when we feel we are being criticised. In these situations we might get ourselves into trouble if we were to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ and this strong physical response is just not needed! Although this physical response can be unpleasant and unhelpful at times, it is not dangerous. It is just our body’s way of trying to protect us. Understanding this can help us to respond in a calmer way to the physical response allowing it to reduce more quickly.
We may face one or more major life events that can contribute to stress, such as a relationship breakdown, losing a job, moving house, a bereavement, financial problems and health problems. We may also experience difficult everyday events that can contribute to stress. The more of these we experience the higher our stress levels are likely to be. In addition to these external stressful events, the way we think about situations can determine how much stress we experience. This is why some people have higher stress levels compared to others who face the same or similar situation. For example, if we have little self-belief when facing a situation we are likely to have higher stress levels.
Therapy for Stress
Although we cannot always avoid external stressful events, through therapy we can together find ways to manage stress to reduce the impact stressful events have upon you. An important part of therapy also involves exploring the stressful experience, including our responses. This can improve our understanding which can help us to appreciate what we are dealing with and why we are struggling, in turn enabling us to be kinder to ourselves.