We all know what it feels like to be stressed. However, how many of us truly understand what happens to us when we’re experiencing stress?
It’s one thing to be vaguely aware that we’re “stressed out” or “under a lot of pressure” and that this is the reason why we’re probably not feeling quite right. However, it’s quite another to be aware of those biological and psychological processes in our bodies which make us experience the feeling we know as stress.
Understanding the nature of stress and why it makes us feel a certain way gives us the ability to better manage and deal with it — and ultimately, can help us feel better.
What causes stress?
You might be surprised to know that a small amount of stress can be beneficial. For instance, a deadline or commitment can help us focus, concentrate, and keep us motivated to get something done.
Less surprising is the fact that excessive stress in a person’s life can affect their mental health and wellbeing.
Most of us recognise the various ways in which stress affects people. Think of what comes to mind when thinking of some who is stressed out. They may be irritable, forgetful, or find it harder to focus and concentrate. They may chew their nails or fidget. They may even overeat comfort food, or smoke and drink to excess. Or they may have sleeping difficulties, tend to get sick more often, or experience mood swings, depression or anxiety.
The more stress that a person experiences, the more pronounced those unpleasant physical and mental signs of stress are likely to be.
But what’s actually going on in the mind and body when we’re experiencing stress?
Psychological and physiological stressors
The feeling that we know as stress occurs when the human body (including the brain) responds to a situation that is perceived as threatening or difficult. Specifically, the feeling occurs when we are faced with what is known as a stressor.
A stressor is a situation that causes the body to release stress hormones as a result of encountering a threat or difficulty. Stressors can take two forms.
These are stressors that are the result of a physical factor. This includes pain, such as a headache or injury; chemicals and drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco or other substances; illness; excessive heat or cold; physical discomfort; extremely loud noise; etc.
These are stressors where something is perceived to be threatening or difficult, but which is not causing immediate physical harm. This includes an enormous range of everyday situations: copping an unexpected insult or put-down; being stuck in slow traffic; family or social get-togethers with people we otherwise try to avoid; work deadlines; crowds or lack of personal space (such as on a packed train); buying a new home; organising a wedding; work deadlines; etc.
Real and perceived threats
The release of stress hormones is associated with what is called the fight or flight response. This phenomenon causes physical changes throughout the body that are intended to aid our survival (the response is also associated with anger and fear). These changes may include increased heart rate, blood flow being diverted to muscles, the body releasing more energy, and many more.
These reactions help us overcome threats and have proven to be very useful evolutionary features for our survival.
Unfortunately, the same evolutionary throwback behind how we respond to danger is also behind how we respond to perceived danger — even when that danger may not necessarily present a physical threat.
For example, the stress response that is triggered when we prepare to escape physical peril (the flight part) may also occur when preparing to face non-threatening situations — whether it’s a dreaded get-together with the in-laws, slow traffic getting in the way of an urgent appointment, or confronting a colleague for their unacceptable behaviour at the office.
That’s because the body has trouble distinguishing between real threats to our safety and perceived threats. These may even include threats to how we feel about our ego or sense of importance, such as insults or an invasion of personal space.
Of course, most people do not face daily life-threatening situations. Many do, however, face the stresses of work (or unemployment), family (or living alone), finances (or hardship), and social pressure (or loneliness).
It’s no surprise then that a large proportion of Australians report having significant levels of stress and anxiety in their lives, particularly when we consider the extent to which excessive stress can affect wellbeing, mental and even physical health.
Stress relief techniques
Everyone deals with stress differently. For a wide range of reasons, some people are better able to deal with stressful situations, just as some are more likely to use unhealthy coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol to cope with stress.
A wide range of techniques are recommended for dealing with stress. Here are some of the more common ways.
- Regular exercise is widely recommended for stress relief and for general improvements in mental health and wellbeing.
- Mindfulness relaxation is a technique that is growing in popularity, so much so that it’s been adopted by many schools, workplaces and even the armed forces of several countries.
- If work stress is becoming a problem, there are a range of things that can help with relieving the pressure, from improving sleep to not checking work emails after hours.
- Would you believe that there is growing evidence that singing, apart from being a fun activity, is also thought to provide mental health benefits and be a great source of stress relief?
- Talking of getting out and about, there is also growing evidence that so-called nature healing can be an effective way to help manage conditions like stress, depression and anxiety.
- One of the most effective methods for dealing with stress and anxiety is to talk about it with a friend, family member or co-worker. If that’s not an option, then NQ Connect provides free counselling over the phone or online with a trained, professional mental health counsellor. This service is free to people in northern Queensland and is available 24/7.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.