We all experience stress and it is very personal as to what triggers it off in us. Understanding the body’s stress response can shed a little bit of light into what goes on inside and why we often get locked into bad habits and unhealthy responses to stress.
How we manage stress can determine our level of health.
We all undergo stress responses on a daily basis. The trigger doesn’t necessarily have to be really bad. For example, crossing the street or making a cup of tea can trigger a response. Our bodies are designed to avoid danger and stay safe. If mild, the stress response can almost go unnoticed. If extreme, unusual or long lasting it can be harmful to almost every bodily system.
Our response to stress is part of the bigger, General Adaptation Syndrome. There are three phases to this, alarm, resistance and exhaustion.
Alarm Phase – is often called the ‘fight of flight’ stage. It is a very old evolutionary response designed to make animals respond to danger. It involves the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands and other factors in our bodies. Our breathing rate goes up, we sweat more, we become alert, our heart beats faster and our muscles contract. We can feel on edge and wired as we ‘wake up’. This can lead to us feeling anxious, sweaty, tense and aggitated. Many of my patients will be familiar with me explaining this response to them. This can be useful if there is a physical danger but in long term stress, this alarm response can happen to us from a simple thought in own own heads without us realising. Understanding this shows us how the mind and body are so related.
Resistance phase – allows the body to continue to protect the itself from danger once the fight or flight hormones have worn off. This involves the production of cortisol from the adrenal gland along with other hormones. These hormones can be helpful when we are faced with danger, but prolonged production can cause us to be at risk of physical diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, poor immune systems and cancer.
Exhaustion – the continued stress finally takes it’s toll and ultimately results in the final stage of the general adaptation response, exhaustion. This can mean burnout.
But it is not the stressors that cause the response it is our individual internal reactions to the stress. When we feel the effects of stress it is then that we look for ways to cope. These can be healthy, or they can be unhealthy.
Unhealthy examples are
- Dependence on chemicals such as smoking, alcohol and caffeine, and even prescription as well as illegal drugs.
- Unhelpful emotional outbursts, anger and arguments
- Feelings of hopelessness
We all know that using unhealthy ways to cope only makes things worse and can lead to chronic anxiety and chronic pain along with ill health The sad thing is that we often get addicted to these unhealthy ways of coping, They feel easy as our brain becomes used to doing them. It can be incredibly difficult to stop and we get locked into a cycle of unhealthy behavioral responses that we want to stop but can’t. Recognition of this can be the first step to stress reduction.
There are ways to unlock this stress cycle and develop helpful responses, it’s not easy by any means but it is possible. Managing stress needs a holistic approach. Mind and Body. It takes determination and willpower, something we may be a bit short of when stress takes hold. Recognising that something needs to be done is the number one starting point and if you have got to that point then it should give you a big boost and a lot of hope. Above all, remember, that we have to start by taking small steps. Rome was not built in a day and no one is perfect. I always like to say that if we can try and start with a more healthy response SOME of the time then we won’t give up so easily. Aim, over time to build up to taking a healthy response for 80 percent of the time. Allowing yourself the odd meltdown, or blowout can then leave you less wracked with guilt. The other important thing is getting support and help. Health Care Professionals are trained to guide you along the way to reduce your stress. We do it every day. Getting help information is the first step.
Ways we can help ourselves have healthier responses to stress
- Learn techniques to calm the mind such as breathing, mindfulness and progressive relaxation.
- Time management- this can be a number one source of stress in our lives, too much to do in too little time and we feel bogged down and hopeless.
- Improve communications with people.
- More exercise
- Healthy diet- kick caffeine and alcohol. Cut down sugars and bad fats, eat less salt and plan your meals.
The Steps to dealing with stress.
- Recognising it in ourselves
- Accepting that stressful things will always happen and be a part of our lives
- Investigate how we react
- Discover new ways of reacting
- Take time and be good enough, don’t aim for perfection.
- Don’t wait until burnout.
Dr Quinton has a strong interest in mind-body medicine. As well as her medical degree she has a degree in Psychology from University College London. She has spent 20 years as a GP and through experience and work believes that her job is to investigate and rule out serious illness as a priority. Her other role is to then support patients to appreciate mind-body reactions and help treat themselves with lifestyle factors and complementary therapies and avoid being over medicalised and lead more relaxed and healthy individual lives and to try and prevent ill health.