It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it. - Hans Selye
Imagine you were an antelope grazing on an African savannah when you suddenly spot a lion out of the corner of your eye. Immediately, your adrenal glands release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. The adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and you experience extreme physical stress as you are now caught in a flight-or-fight response due to the threat of being eaten!
While we might often feel like that defenceless antelope, when it comes to humans, the stress is not caused by being chased by a predator but is mostly caused by what we think of in our minds. It is usually not posed by an immediate life or death situation. What we need to know is that the thoughts in our minds can physically make us sick.
Funnily enough, it is not the stress that kills us but our reaction to it. If we view stress as an enemy and dangerous, then it will have damaging effects on us.
Yeah, yeah. It's not always a bad thing
Based on research by the University of California, moderate stress can actually make us more alert and observant, so stress is not completely bad for us. It forces the brain to adapt to challenges and keep learning which leads to improved performance.
A simple example could be feeling stressed about having to present an important presentation at work. We should not immediately think it is bad for us but have a positive perspective towards it. We can reframe the situation and convert the stress into energy that works for us. This might work in our favour and produce a better outcome.
Additionally, there is no point in praying for a stress-free life in order to be happy. The reality is that there will always be new issues and problems that crop up in our lives!
In other words, our thoughts can literally poison our bodies.
How do we know if stress is affecting our quality of life? It can be quite serious if it is affecting our concentration, quality of sleep and overall health. If it is very severe, it can even lead to a burnout or a nervous breakdown. This is when we feel physically, mentally and emotionally depleted!
Our body essentially responds to the way we think, feel and act. This is what we would call a mind-body connection. For example, imagine if our boss tells us that we must deliver an important report within the next hour. Our thoughts immediately become anxious which sends signals to our body and causes us to get stressed out and physically feel unwell.
All of this is happening even though there was no direct physical danger. In other words, our thoughts can literally poison our bodies.
Based on the book Stress, the Psychology of Managing Pressure by Diane McIntosh and Jonathan Horowitz, stress is our conviction that we won’t be able to cope with the challenges that we are facing. Being stressed out can provoke fear, anxiety and worry and each represents a different emotional reaction.
A typical example of how stress can occur at the workplace is when we feel that we are unable to handle our workload. This spirals into a negative chain reaction where we think something will go wrong. This leads us to having repetitive thoughts and worry that we may lose our jobs.
Fear, on the other hand, is a survival trait that could lead us to have different reactions which could be either fight, flight, freeze or submission. When the fear becomes excessive, it will affect the quality of our life and prevents us from doing what we need to do.
In general, we get stressed out about things that we care about. When we face a situation that has consequences that may impact us, we will experience fear at the thought of it going wrong. According to the same book, stress is fundamentally an adaptive response to high-pressure situations which may enable us to create a positive outcome. We can face stress and take back our sense of control by learning to adapt to it.
According to an article by The Star newspaper in 2019, Malaysians surveyed under the National Worry Index were extremely worried about the economy, cost of living, jobs and security. The index is reportedly the first of its kind in Malaysia. An estimated 86% were worried about the cost of basic needs and unaffordable homes and this was followed by a lack of job opportunities at 77%. To make matters worse, people are now stressed out about their safety and livelihood due to Covid-19. Honestly, it seems like there is an endless supply of things to be stressed about!
While we all know that there are lot of stressors in our lives, we need to know how to manage it. Unmanaged stress contributes to a wide range of damaging and dramatic side effects which can range from physical to mental. Having high levels of stress for a sustained period can greatly impact the body’s recovery system.
Yes, being stressed out will slowly kill you
Stress can also affect the gastrointestinal system and cause indigestion and stomach ulcers. According to Deborah Rhodes, M.D., a consultant in internal medicine at Mayo Medical School, anxiety and stress can cause the body to produce more digestive acid which leads to heartburn.
They can also affect the emptying of food from the stomach which causes gas and bloating. It may even increase the number of times the colon contracts, leading to cramping and diarrhoea. I once had a colleague who had bad gastric problems due to her constantly being stressed out at work. She repeatedly went to the doctor for solutions but could never be completely healed. It was only when her workload was dialled down, did she find enough time for her body to recuperate.
Stress in general can cause us to react in different ways. One of the common examples is stress eating. When our bodies perceive stress, it assumes we need physical energy for protection and release ghrelin and leptin. These hormones trigger the sensation of being hungry. I can identify with this because whenever I get stressed out, I turn to chocolates and potato chips which increases my sugar and salt intake!
It provides an instant sense of relief that I desperately need. Many people turn to food as something to comfort them when they feel stressed out, which leads to overconsumption and an increase in weight. Stress can also have an opposite effect where people lose their appetites to eat. They only eat one small meal a day and ignore the hunger pangs. This results in gastritis which only exacerbates the situation.
You just won’t feel like yourself
On top of everything else, stress can make us lose control of our emotions. When we are stressed, small triggers can lead us to losing our tempers which does not happen in normal circumstances. It greatly impairs our ability to assess a situation properly and severely affects our relationships with others. My colleague was once constantly stressed at work and he would snap at his wife and children whenever he came home from a long day at work. This created a very unpleasant home environment and he always felt guilty at how he reacted. His children never felt happy when they saw him and instead, tried to avoid interacting with him when he was home.
Do not be shy. Talk with people that we can trust about what is stressing us.
So now that we are fully aware of the effects of chronic stress, what can we do to manage it? One of the best ways is to simply stop ourselves from feeling stressed in the first place. That means we should not immediately jump into fight-or-flight mode but calmly assess the situation. Stress happens when we give our power to the problem. Therefore, we should be in control of the problem and not the other way around. We need to identify what are our stressors which are causing us to feel that we are in danger.
However, we all know that it is not easy to prevent ourselves from getting stressed out if we are really in a challenging situation. According to an article on breathing techniques for stress relief by WebMD, the first immediate thing we can do when we feel our stress level rising is to take a deep breath from our belly. This is much better than taking short, shallow breaths in our chest.
Place one hand on our belly and another on our chest. As we breathe in, our belly should rise and when we breathe out, the hand on our belly should move more than the one on our chest. As we do this deep breathing, try to calm ourselves by saying something soothing such as “Everything is going to be okay”.
We can also practice being mindful by practicing breathing meditation. Find a quiet area where you can sit and close your eyes. Slowly focus on your breath by breathing in and out. Do not worry about being distracted by the sounds in your environment. If you do get distracted, simply bring your focus back to your breath.
Being mindful can make us feel calmer, focused and feel less stressed. In a fast-paced environment, we tend to have many thoughts floating in our heads, but we need to remember that we are not our thoughts but observers of it. It does not mean we need to ignore our thoughts, we just need to be free from judgment and understand that the negative thoughts that we have is not necessarily real or true.
If we feel completely overwhelmed at that very moment, take a quick break. We need to decompress on a regular basis and go for frequent breaks or adopt relaxation techniques. We cannot allow the stress to steadily build up without having an avenue for us to release it. Stress without relief is known as distress. We are not meant to be completely revved up all the time. If we are, it will only be a matter of time before our body breaks down. We should also avoid turning to alcohol, drugs or food when we are stressed as it could make us feel worse.
Put your thoughts to paper
Another great way to release our stressful thoughts is to write and keep a stress diary. While we are often glued to our phones, nothing beats the therapeutic action of putting thoughts to paper. It is a great coping mechanism and we can express how we actually feel at the moment without worrying what others think. The writing does not need to be perfect and we just need to allow ourselves to freely write down whatever it is we are feeling.
By having a stress diary, we can quickly identify the common triggers that make us feel stressed. It can provide a great sense of relief and feels almost as good as talking to a friend. There were times when I felt troubled and could not fully understand the thoughts that were running in my head. Writing them down helped me to reflect on them and discover what was truly bothering me. It can be as simple as writing “I am feeling stressed because…” and putting down the reason why. This will also help us to cope with stressful situations better in the future.
Ask for help
Do not be shy. Talk with people that we can trust about what is stressing us. Even if there is no concrete solution provided, having an ear to listen can do wonders to alleviate the stress.
For a long-term solution, whenever we are feeling stressed, we need to find out the root cause of what is causing it. According to the Mental Health Foundation website, we can categorize our stress into 3 main categories. Firstly, those with a practical solution, secondly, those that will get better given time and thirdly, those that we cannot do anything about.
For the first category, if we’re stressed out about an issue that we can do something about, stop fretting and take the necessary action to solve it. Most of the time, we will try to avoid the issue and ignore it. While avoiding the issue may provide a temporary escape, it will eventually become more stressful because the issue is still unsolved!
If all else fails, have desserts because that is what stressed is when spelt backward!
Instead of overdramatising an issue, we can try to simplify the problem in our head and write down the steps that we can take. Therefore, instead of replaying the problem continuously in our heads, take action to tackle the problem. We get stressed out when the problem is there, and we do not take any action. Make a list of possible solutions and slowly review them. By realising that we have options, we will usually feel better after knowing we are doing what we can to solve the issue.
However, for the second and third categories, we need to release the worry and let them go. If it is something we have no control over, it will only cause us misery if we keep stressing about it! Accept that some circumstances are truly beyond our control. If we cannot change the situation, we must change our response to it.
We do not have to worry because there is nothing we can do!
While it may seem simple to pinpoint the causes of stress due to a heavy workload or family issues, we also need to understand how our own thoughts and actions contribute to our daily stress levels too. For example, do we get stressed out easily over small issues?
If we do, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves not to sweat over the small stuff. Will this issue still matter in a year to you? If not, take a deep breath and move forward. Otherwise, we will be stressed out over every single small thing that happens in our life. It is important to keep things in perspective.
Do we also tend to take on too much workload or help others too much? If yes, it is time to say no to look after our own well-being. It is detrimental to take on too much at the expense of our own health and sanity. If we feel like we are already drowning, we will not be able to help another person that’s drowning either! We really need to know our limits.
Be realistic of how much we can contribute on a daily basis and pare down on unnecessary requests. If we are busy working, do not feel guilty about outsourcing the cleaning of the home to a cleaning provider. Additionally, if we feel too tired to cook after coming back from work, order healthy options from food deliveries as that will allow more quality time to be spent with the family.
Do we also get too stressed out from failure? Sometimes we place too much expectation on ourselves that it causes anxiety when we are unable to perform. If others place expectations on us, we also need to manage that so that it does not become such a huge burden.
Get out of your own head
Another thing we need to stop doing is overthinking and worrying too much. There is a catchy term which describes it and it is called analysis paralysis. When we have the tendency to overthink things, we are stuck in a repetitive thinking pattern that gets us nowhere and causes us anxiety. When we over dramatise the worries in our heads, that’s when we get stressed out.
Most of us usually worry that our jobs will be at stake if we do not perform well enough which leads to performance anxiety. It also does not help when we hear stories of people losing their jobs and being retrenched. It becomes an unspoken fear that we could potentially be next on the chopping block if we do not meet the high expectations.
Before we get stuck in a worry pattern, we should set aside time to identify exactly what we are stressed out about. This will ensure we are not caught in a worry loop throughout the day which will disrupt our daily activities. Use this specified worry time to find solutions and act on what we are worried about. Most of what we worry about does not happen anyway!
On top of this, we often worry when we are uncertain of what may happen in the future. We need to learn how to embrace uncertainties because life is always unpredictable. We do not need to know every single page of what will happen in our life. If we do, life would be quite boring too!
While it is absolutely normal to feel stressed, what is important is to know that we can manage it. This is done by having realistic expectations, keeping our problems in perspective, and by taking breaks. If all else fails, have desserts because that is what stressed is when spelt backward!