What is stress? It is all of the day-to-day, week-to-week problems and difficulties we have to face. It is the angry boss, the aggressive driver, the rude shop assistant, the pressing deadline, the stupid helpdesk and the queue that never moves in the supermarket. It is the endless list of things we have to do. We all have this in our lives, so why is it that some people let themselves get really stressed and frustrated and angry; and make themselves really ill… whilst others seem to take it all in their stride: they’re cool, they’re relaxed, they just handle it. Nothing seems to stress them.
Stress is the combination of events that challenge us psychologically and physiologically. And because we sometimes respond well, coping and even thriving under the pressure; and at other times our response is to get ‘stressed out’, it is clearly not the stress that does the damage: it is our response to it.
Humans have evolved our stress responses to deal with very real threats from things like large predators. Whenever your brain detects stress, it responds in just the same way as your ancestors’. Somewhere between 20 and 30 different stress hormones are released into your bloodstream and together, they have a massive impact on you. Your natural response to stress comes from the effect of these hormones.
Your senses become more acute, your breathing becomes faster and shallower, your pulse rate shoots up and your muscles get tense, ready to spring into action. You sweat, you become anxious, you want to run away!
And at the same time as this part of your nervous system – called your sympathetic nervous system – jumps into overload; your body shuts down the other part, the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part responsible for immunity, repair, digestion, sleep regulation and sexual function.
So, as if it isn’t bad enough that when we are stressed, we tense up, we sweat and our hearts race, but we also lose our appetite, can’t sleep, get spots and lose our sex drive!
Sound familiar? Stress is not itself a bad thing: what is bad for you is to carry over this response from one day to the next.
If it is your response to stress that does the damage, then this is where you must take action. You cannot control external events, but you can control the way you deal with them. And control is the secret: we feel stressed out when we do not feel in control.
There are five areas of your lie where you can take control, and therefore manage your stress levels: your physical response to stress, your environment, how you use your time, your attitudes, and your mental response to stress.
Five points of control, to manage stress
The keys are good rest, good energy, and good fuel. Start breaking the stress cycle by allowing adrenalin and other stress hormones to dissipate, by creating good opportunities to relax at the end of the day, and building effective night-time sleep habits. Add regular exercise into your routine to boost your body’s maintenance and repair systems, and help your sleep. Supplement this with a good diet and plenty of water.
Taking control over your physical environment – simply by tidying or re-arranging it – will give you a feeling of being in control over an aspect of your external life, reducing stress levels. Pay attention first to the small aspects that bug you, and keep making changes, always focusing on what you can affect, rather than what you cannot.
Use your time to do the things that matter most and start to let go of trivia and distractions that get in the way of meaningful progress. Learn to say no to things that do not matter. Plan your days in outline, starting with the outcomes you want to create by the end of the day, then listing the activities that will achieve this. Then estimate how long each will take and schedule activities into your day. Leave plenty of gaps, so that unexpected things don’t stress you out, because you have time to address them if you choose not to say no.
Often it is our unconscious attitudes that trigger stress, because they conflict with other choices we have made. Early experiences may leave us feeling we need to be careful, try harder, feel guilty, please others or be serious, for example. It is time to spot the patterns of behavior that betray your unconscious attitudes, and challenge whether those attitudes really serve you well.
When we feel stressed out, we focus on what we think is wrong, on our impotence, and on how things might continue to go badly. Three different areas of focus will really help you. First, gratitude: focus on the good things in your life, for which you are grateful. They may be big, general things, like the health of family members or small specifics, like a nice cup of coffee you had this morning. Second is optimism: not blind, glass half-full optimism, but knowing what you want, and a constant awareness of possible opportunities. Finally, develop a determination to persevere and overcome short-term setbacks. When you talk to yourself, stop beating yourself up and start reminding yourself of the resources you have, the people who love and support you, and the experience and skills you can bring to bear.
You cannot manage stress – like time, it is an external influence that we must all deal with. But you can manage the way you respond to it. By asserting your control over two or three specific areas of your life, you can dispel your stress response, and therefore remove the harm that long-term stress can cause. When you do this, you restore stress to its rightful place in your life: as a sign that will warn you of impending danger and put you on your mettle.
In a big storm, it is the deeply rooted trees and the young, supple saplings that brush off the wind as if it were not there. Create firm roots by establishing habits that help you stay in control, and develop the suppleness to flex with the circumstances around you. If you do this, then stress will do you no damage.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of Optimum Nutrition.
You can download a pdf of this article: Optimum Nutrition – Stress-Damage