Stressing about Stress: Busting the Myths and Bolstering our Resistance
Stress. I’m stressed. He’s stressed. She’s stressed. Especially before exams, assignments, or work, we heard this word being thrown around. People are taking medication for it, trying to fight it, or trying to run away from it. Yet, have you ever stopped to wonder what stress actually is?
The word itself can actually refer to two separate things:
1. The psychological perception of pressure, danger, or threat.
2. The body’s response to (1)
Before we dive into this fascinating topic, let’s get one thing straight: Stress is not always “bad”. A certain amount of stress is actually good because it provides us motivation. Psychologists call this optimal level of stress “eustress”, a combination of the Greek “eu” meaning good, and stress, meaning, well, stress. However, when stress reaches dangerous levels, whether too much stress or feeling stressed for too long, it becomes distress and that’s the one that can be deadly.
In fact, if we didn’t feel stress, humans would have died out a long time ago because we would be blissfully unaware to potential threats such as a predator. In fact, research has shown that animals and even plants demonstrate similar stress signals! (Wait. What? PLANTS GET STRESSED? Yes, that’s a topic for another day but if you’re interested, you can read more here: http://metro.co.uk/2015/07/29/bad-news-vegetarians-plants-feel-stress-just-like-human-beings-5317874/).
So, what exactly is stress? As we mentioned above, stress is predominantly a physical reaction to a perception of threat, pressure, or danger. Today, we don’t have tigers stalking us, but we do have perceived pressures from exams, work, other drivers on the road, or even when we exercise. However, our bodies can’t tell the difference and the same chemical and physiological signals activate.
When a threat is perceived, your body is shifts into emergency mode, otherwise known as the fight-flight-freeze response (Wait, I’ve heard of fight-or-flight, but freeze? Again, yup. We’ll get to that in a minute). When this happens, your brain, thinking you are under attack, releases a number of potent hormones and chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine to make your body ready for physical action. Our pupils dilate, our hearts beat faster, we breathe harder, our blood vessels dilate, we sweat, and our digestive system stops among other side effects. Cortisol also acts to inhibit our prefrontal cortex, and directs blood to primary muscles – Important in situations where life or death can be a split-second decision. All these effects give us a rush of energy to either fight or run if necessary. In certain situations, when neither fight nor flight is possible, we may freeze, where all this energy that’s being activated gets stuck in our system.
In the ancient world, where danger was all around, we can see why these were necessary. Even in today’s world, it can be helpful e.g. jamming the brakes before you slam into a car. However, the problems begin when our body goes into this stress mode in inappropriate situations or we experience chronic stress (i.e. long-term stress). The first issue can be problematic for situations at work or at home when our minimized ability to think rationally combined with the energy to act may lead us to say or do things that we’ll regret later. Long-term stress will also impact the body because those same potentially life-saving responses can result in immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive problems. One of the most difficult types of stress to notice is actually routine stress because its source can be constant e.g. being under a lot of pressure at work or even daily traffic jams. Due to the constant stress, our bodies never receive a signal to return to normal functioning which can lead to the problems described above and worse, to serious health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, and even psychological issues such as depression and anxiety.
THAT’S TERRIBLE, WHAT DO I DO?
Hold up, like we said, not all stress is bad. However, if you think you’re being overwhelmed, here are some things you could try:
1. Be aware of stress signals. Take notice of any distinct changes such as difficulty sleeping, increased substance use, feeling depressed, anxious, and lethargic, being easily angered, or any others. Different people experience stress differently, so you need to be aware of yourself.
2. Get regular exercise. Exercise helps to discharge some of that energy and hormones released when exercising help to reduce stress and boost your mood.
3. Set goals and priorities. Sometimes we DO have a lot on our plate and everything seems terribly urgent and important. However, taking a few minutes to sit down and list out what needs to be done and in what order can already help take the edge off by giving you a plan. If you need a visual aid, Stephen Covey talks about using the time management grid – categorizing all your tasks into four quadrants:
– Important and Urgent
– Not Important but Urgent
– Important but not Urgent
– Not Important and Not Urgent
This allows you to prioritize your work at a glance while the act of listing out your tasks helps to sooth some anxiety.
4. Try a relaxing activity. There are hundreds of stress coping programmes out there, the more famous ones being activities like yoga, meditation or tai chi. For short term stress relief, activities like deep breathing or visual imagery exercises can be very helpful. Simply search Youtube for “Deep breathing” or “Visual imagery” and you’ll find plenty of helpful videos. If you’re interested in the science behind it, take a read here: https://www.stress.org/take-a-deep-breath/
5. Take care of yourself. If possible, factors such as getting a good night’s sleep (that’s at least 6-8 hours, if you’re wondering), drinking enough water, and getting good nutritious food (not just maggi mee) are all helpful in strengthening the body to deal with stress.
6. Learn to adopt a positive mindset. How we respond to situations is usually dependent on how we interpret or see a situation. Learning to adopt a more positive growth-oriented mindset where stress is seen as a demand that can be coped with instead of something to dread helps tremendously. (Video? Sure, why not? Here’s Dr. Angela Duckworth on promoting grit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H14bBuluwB8).
7. Seek help if you need. Stress can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to face it alone. Reach out to good friends and family to ask for help in managing stress (unless they’re the ones causing the stress, in which case..). If necessary, look for a qualified mental health professional who is trained to help you learn to cope better with stressors. Check with your university, or this directory by the Malaysian Mental Health Association: http://mmha.org.my/resources/directory-of-councelling-services/.
Lastly, consider this quote by Leonard Bernstein: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” Take heart, this too shall pass.