This is a guest post from Meera Phull. Meera is the Director of Brighter Minds, a service specialising in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. By profession, Meera is a BABCP accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and Registered Mental Health Nurse with over ten years of experience working in mental health across the NHS, private sector, University and corporate workplace settings. Meera is passionate about empowering people to improve their mental health and wellbeing and provides individualised treatment to support with this. You can find out more here.
What is Stress?
Stress is something we are all likely to be able to relate to. We experience stress when we feel under pressure. This can result from the demands of life feeling out of balance with our perceived ability to cope. Stress in small doses is healthy as it is a motivator. For example, if we have an upcoming deadline, it is often stress that motivates us to take the necessary actions to meet it. However, when stress levels are high or sustained even at low levels for extended periods, it can impact on our health and wellbeing.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) named stress as the epidemic of the 21st Century. It is something more of us are struggling with and can include work-stress and burnout. Although it is not a mental health condition itself, if we remain stressed for extended periods of time, stress can develop into anxiety and depression.
Stress and Anxiety
I often get asked the difference between stress and anxiety. Stress is typically caused by an external trigger or life event such as a deadline, illness or career change. Anxiety is characterised by excessive and persistent worries that remain problematic even in the absence of a stress trigger. Stress and anxiety can feel very similar because both activate the body’s stress response. When you perceive a threat, your brain prepares your body for an intense physical reaction to fight or flee the threat. This is known as the ‘fight or flight response.’ When the threat and sense of danger has passed, your body is able to relax and recover.
This response helped us survive threats, such as predators, when we were hunter-gatherers. However, the threats we face as part of our modern life are less likely to be physical threats and more likely to be linked with managing demands of work or home life, or meeting the expectations of ourselves or others. If we are going through a challenging period at work, facing financial difficulties or caring for a loved one with an illness, for example, the sense of threat may be ongoing. Rather than a predator we can fight or run away from, these kinds of stressors don’t always have a clear end point and so can cause chronic stress. These examples don’t require an intense physical reaction, but the brain activates the stress response that prepares our body for this regardless because it’s what it’s hard-wired to do.
Symptoms of Stress
When you’re stressed, you may notice your heart rate increases, you feel hot, sweaty, tense, your mind feels like it’s racing and it’s hard to focus. When the stress response is activated, a number of physiological changes occur to optimise our ability to act physically. To conserve energy, ‘non-essential’ bodily systems such as the immune, reproductive and digestive systems can become supressed. If this is sustained over long periods, this can make you more susceptible to illness; reproductive difficulties such as erectile dysfunction or irregular periods; and digestive discomfort such as nausea and changes in appetite.
What can we do about this?
One of the things that can feel so challenging about stress is a sense that we can’t control the triggers. Often, they are situations we can’t change. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a psychological therapy that acknowledges this. While we can’t always change our situations or experiences, we can make changes to the way we think and behave in response to them. We all have unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaviour that can inadvertently further exacerbate our stress. By recognising our stress triggers and our patterns of responding to them, we can identify areas for change and then take action to make these changes to reduce our stress and improve our wellbeing.