What comes to mind when you hear the word “stress”? Is it something physical, like tension in the muscles, a tight jaw, or a headache? Is it something mental, like constantly worrying, losing sleep, or feeling overwhelmed? Or is it something external, like a mountain of work that needs to be done, difficult relationships, or a presentation you need to deliver in front of an audience?
When I ask participants in our stress management groups what word comes to mind, it’s invariably negative. But with the HSC upon us and the end-of-year rush that all schools must deal with, it’s time to revisit what stress means and how we relate to it.
What is stress?
Here’s the rub – stress is actually useful. Stress is your body’s natural biological reaction to a real or perceived threat. Gearing us up for action, it raises the heart rate and blood pressure, quickens the breathing, tenses the muscles and alerts the mind. In short, sharp doses, it is very useful and is crucial for our survival.
In ancient times, stress triggered the “fight-or-flight” response and allowed us to quickly elevate our mental and physical state for the purposes of hunting, fighting, running towards food or away from predators, responding immediately and effectively to the “life-or-death” situations that prehistoric humans often encountered.
Then why the negative connotations?
The problem is we no longer live in those times. The situations we are faced with now are rarely “life-or-death”, but our brain still interprets them as such. What’s more, we have far more things to contend with at once. Social media, peer pressure, homework, body image, exams, deadlines, timetables, complex relationships, our finances, our future, bullying, criticism, hostility, the list goes on and on. While these may not (usually) kill us as such, they can be compounding and relentless, giving us no room to breathe.
When it comes to stress, it’s this room to breathe that counts. Stress is perfectly healthy in acute and short doses, but when it is prolonged and chronic, it begins to wreak havoc on our physical and mental state. Ulcers, headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, sleep deprivation (to name a few of the physical short-term symptoms), with diabetes, cancer, heart disease and more in the long-term. Mentally and emotionally, it can cause difficulties concentrating and making decisions, regulating moods and managing anger, poor impulse control and memory, social withdrawal, addictive behaviours, disengagement and over time it can cause mental health disorders such as anxiety disorder and depression.
So what do we do about it?
The solution is not to aim at eliminating all the stress from our lives. That’s not only impossible (unless you’d like to pack up shop and live as a Buddhist monk), but it’s also just as unhealthy as too much stress. We actually need some stress to operate at our best, and a life without stress would be a life without growth. We just need to wind it back a bit at times and to set ourselves up to meet life’s inevitable challenges from a place of calm and clarity.
Sounds great. How do I do it?
1. Notice the signs of too much stress
It all starts with awareness. We all respond differently to different situations, and by recognising the early symptoms that arise when you are feeling immense stress, you can prevent things from spiralling out of control.
2. Keep it simple and physical
With endless apps, books and tools out there, it can be confusing to know what works best. Keep it simple – basic physical habits like getting sunshine, a bit of exercise, quality food and sleep will surprise you in terms of showing how much our bodies and brains are connected.
3. Sharpen the saw
A lumberjack was in the forest. He was sweating, grunting and swearing, chopping away at a tree. A hiker stumbled across him, saw what the lumberjack was doing, and mentioned that his job would be much easier if he took a moment to sharpen his saw. The lumberjack replied “there’s no time for that – I’ve got too many trees to chop down”. Sound familiar? Maintaining a few consistent daily habits like journaling, meditation and gratitude practices can help “sharpen the saw” and allow you to use stress as a servant and not a master.
4. Don’t try to do it alone
Four of the most powerful words in the English language are “can you help me” – yet they’re often the most difficult ones to say. If you are under a lot of stress, then asking for help, letting people around you know you’re dealing with a lot, or actively talking through the things which are stressing you out with a trusted friend, family member, teacher, colleague or counsellor can go a long way to relieving the burden. You don’t even need to come to a “solution” – simply airing your concerns can give you the breathing space you need.
For more tips on how to get comfortable with stress, join our free and interactive webinar “Making friends with stress” on 18th & 20th October at 6.30pm!