We asked one of our experts, Bernadette Dancy to give us the lowdown on stress. Bernadette specialises in health and exercise coaching.
What is stress?
There are a few different definitions for stress. The most common definition describes it as a response for when pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope.
But it’s not always necessary for someone to be conscious of a stressor to experience this response. In fact, a stress response can happen subconsciously when the brain recognises that there is a demand upon the body. Quite often this demand is something that requires the body to move away from a threat. For example, we may be alarmed by a foul smell, loud sound or something dangerous like a fire. Our stress response is activated to move us further from that threat.
It’s also initiated so that we can take part in physical activity or structured exercise. This is necessary so that:
- our heart beats faster
- we breathe more quickly
- working muscles receive enough oxygen
So, stress isn’t just an emotional response. It’s an essential state that humans and animals activate in order to keep the body in balance and protect us from danger.
Being stressed only becomes a problem if we activate the response too often. When this happens we will experience physical and emotional symptoms. Overall, you could say that stress is a state designed to keep us healthy. But modern life means we’re activating this state far too often. Stress is not something we can eradicate, nor would we want to. What we really need to do is create a lifestyle that incorporates more opportunity for in rest and recovery.
What are the signs?
Signs that you are experiencing stress vary depending on the length of exposure.
Acute stress (short-lived) is likely to vary in intensity depending on the severity of the demand or degree to which you feel you have influence over the situation. However, an acutely stressed person is likely to experience:
- raised heart rate
- increased breath rate
- feel like hitting
- want to walk away from a situation
Adrenaline and cortisol release cause this to happen. It’s biologically essential that we have the urge to move or escape when we are ‘stressed’ otherwise we wouldn’t survive.
It’s also why we often call it a ‘fight or flight’ response. What we talk less of is the third reaction, which is ‘freeze’. If an event is sufficiently dangerous or threatening, our brain will attempt to protect us by conserving energy. In this case a person might actually freeze, go quiet or shut down. In severe acutely stressful situations it’s not unknown for a person to vomit, empty their bowels or have the urge to pee. Again, this is the body’s way of directing energy to working muscles and away from unnecessary systems such as digestion and excretion.
When stress is chronic (lasting more than a day and starting to affect appetite or sleep) the symptoms are wide and varied. People can experience physical symptoms such as:
- high blood pressure
- heart problems
- digestive issues
- IBS symptoms
- muscle aches and pains
- loss of libido, periods (women) or erections (men)
Psychological symptoms are also common, such as anxiety, low mood, forgetfulness, brain fog, difficulty sleeping or waking up in the morning, and loss of interest in the things that were once enjoyed.
Is some stress good?
It’s neither good nor bad. It’s more that the stress response is there to serve us and keep us in ‘homeostasis’.
But we as humans need to protect this balance within our bodies. Staying on the right side of overwhelm means that we can interpret situations to be ‘stressful’ but not threatening. But we need to recover from previous stresses in order to do this. A person who’s in balance typically has plenty of room to deal with the demands at hand and might refer to this as ‘pressure’ rather than ‘stress’.
For example, you may want to expose yourself to a stressful career or life because you view it as exciting or how you ‘get things done’. In order to do this, you need to make sure you’re also getting plenty of rest, recovery and time out to do the things you love do.
How do we know when we have too much stress?
When you are starting to react to things that you believe you would ordinarily handle quite well, it’s a good sign that your threshold has been overshot. Quite often though, people aren’t very good at identifying where their threshold is. This is predominantly because the body can sustain quite an amount of stress before physical symptoms start to become obvious. It’s often the case that physical symptoms are dismissed or not associated with stress. So it can be quite a long time before people reach ‘breaking point’ or start to identify why they’re experiencing symptoms.
How can we increase coping techniques?
The best thing we can do is to create a buffer between our base level and the amount of stress that we perceive to be ‘too much’. When we create this, we are allowing our body time to recover between stressful events. When we don’t have a good buffer, we’re activating the response too often which can lead to chronic stress or, eventually, burnout.
All of us need to make better use of psychological coping strategies, such as reframing our thoughts. Alongside this, we should use lifestyle habits, such as getting better sleep, spending more quality time having fun or socialising with friends. Essentially, aim to take part in as many activities as possible that encourage the body to be in a relaxed state.
What is Burnout?
Burnout can happen to anyone but is only defined as being a workplace phenomenon. It occurs after a period of exhaustion (physical or emotional), de-personalisation or reduced affiliation with the task at hand, and reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Burnout is hard to quantify because it’s not something that’s definitively diagnosed in the workplace or occupational health.
Stress, however, is recorded and in 2020/21 was the cause of 50% of all work-related ill health.
What are the stats on burnout and stress during the pandemic?
Research indicates that the number of people experiencing stress increased during the pandemic. According to research from the Health and Safety Executive, of the 822,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020/21, an estimated 449,000 reported that this was caused or made worse by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
April is Stress Awareness Month
The theme of this year’s Stress Awareness Month is ‘community’. The Mental Health Foundation who organise this awareness week each year say: “As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s vital that the community support experienced by many people during this challenging time continues.” We know that community is essential to maintaining positive mental wellbeing.
At Elevate, to mark Stress Awareness Month, we have a host of sessions with Dr Bernie, keynote sessions with our psychotherapist and anxiety specialist Joshua Fletcher, resilience training with our founder Lucy Faulks-Barnard, as well as meditation and mindfulness sessions, sound baths and relaxing yoga or Pilates classes to support the wellbeing of employees – get in touch to find out how to join our community and empower your workforce to find healthy ways of managing stress.