Tuning into your stress

Stress is part of all our lives. Dr Julie Denning from W2W reflects on the importance of tuning into your stress.

We all need a little bit of stress to get us up and running.

‘Eustress’  is the technical term for positive stress and has the following characteristics:
• Motivates, focuses energy.
• Is short-term.
• Is perceived as within our coping abilities.
• Feels exciting.
• Improves performance.

Eustress really helps us meet deadlines and give a great presentation at work!

The problem comes when Eustress tips into stress.  Stress is a funny old word.  We all know what it means yet its definition is broad.  Is it something that happens to us –a stressor, or within us ‘I’m stressed’?  It certainly isn’t a clinical diagnosis, yet we all identify with the label.  Certainly it has helped us to talk about our mood and was the fore runner of the now mental health movement.

Generally speaking we don’t want stress in our lives, whether it’s the daily hassles that we experience (or micro doses as Dr Rangan Chatterjee calls them in his book “The Stress Solution”) which include things like a red traffic light when we are late, forgetting your child’s costume on World Book Day, or forgetting bread in the weekly shop, or life events that can be out of our control such as a road traffic accident or bullying at work.

What is the stress response?
Our clever body responds to the threat that our brain perceives in a given situation.  In days gone by this would have been something like a sabre tooth tiger (to quote an archetype) but these days it is much more likely to be an angry driver or irritable boss.
Our body rushes to defend our brain and bolsters us to either fight the situation or take flight. There is a rush of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol released into our system, we breathe more quickly taking on more oxygen our heart beats more quickly and pushes the newly oxygenated blood into our key muscle groups enabling us to be able to fight our aggressor or run as fast as possible away from it.  We may notice a tinging in our fingers as our blood rushes away from peripheral to central parts of our body.  All unnecessary energy sapping body activities stop, so digestion goes on hold, our immune system is paused.  We feel a lurching in our stomachs or butterflies. We sweat to keep ourselves cool.

This is an amazing system.  It snaps into action extremely quickly to help us and equally as quickly it can be reduced.  However, it isn’t a pleasant experience and can feel very frightening if you don’t know what it is.

When the stress response can be harmful
Very often in a bid to manage stress we avoid putting ourselves in the situation in the first place, which is an immediate relief as the fight or flight response subsides but longer term,  may cause us more difficulties as we don’t deal with situations, rather ‘sweep them under the carpet’.
If the fight or flight response is activated for longer periods, it can start to have a depleting effect and we can become fatigued and under the weather. If we were to look inside our bodies we might notice an increase in inflammation which can lead to poor health. This can also be caused by persistent low to medium levels of stress, where we become adapted to higher levels of hormones in our body, which in turn can cause chronic inflammation.
It’s safe to say, that unless you live a charmed life, there is likely always going to be some degree of stress within your life.  Avoidance therefore, may not be the best way to deal with stress and the stress response. The trick is, how to manage that stress so the impact of it is limited.  ‘Tuning in’ is likely to be more helpful.

Tuning in to your stress
Tuning in or developing our self awareness, can help us to deal with stressors and stressful situations more easily and with less of a physical and psychological impact.

One way of tuning in is to look at the situation from four angles:
1) Thoughts: what is going through your mind? What are you saying to yourself?  What are you thinking about? For example; I hate giving presentations, everyone will think I am stupid, I always look so nervous, I’ll be a laughing stock.

2) Emotions:  you know you are ‘stressed’ but break it down further into different emotional words.  That way you know much more about yourself and the situation.  So…… are you feeling:

a. Angry
b. Sad
c. Frustrated
d. Jealous
e. Ashamed
f. Confused
g. Irritable

To put this in context, if your boss is having a go at you again, you feel stressed, but you might be feeling ashamed or confused, someone else in the same situation may also report feeling stressed but actually is angry and frustrated.  Knowing what you are feeling will help you to start dealing with specifics rather than a generic ‘stressor’.

3) Physical response: notice how your body feels.  Can you feel your heart racing?  Are you taking gulps of air or breathing more quickly?  Are you sweating, do you feel butterflies in your tummy.  What else do you experience?  This is your body’s stress response.   Tune in and notice it next time you feel stressed.  Realise that it is your body trying to help you.  You don’t need to be afraid of your body.  Its amazing and your strength.

4) Behaviour:  Do you start to become irritable with other people?  Do you ‘head for the hills’ and find the quickest way out of the situation,. E.g. not answer the phone, delay sending an email.  Turn up late for work?  Shout at your subordinates rather than confront your boss?

Now, tuning in like this, looking at your thoughts, emotions, physical reaction and behavioural response might seem a big task to do, but it will help you to take stock of the situation and help you to think about how you want to respond next time.

You can reflect on the stressful situation:  is it really a threat?  You can understand when you feel your body reacting that it is just an automatic response designed to help and you can self soothe saying to yourself’ it’s just the stress response, I’m OK’.
Knowing you feel emotionally can help you to process the threat from a different angle:  ‘how can I resolved the frustration’ ‘I’m angry because they’ve crossed a line – but do I need to be more flexible in my thinking?’  I’d normally run away – is that going to be helpful here?
Tuning also helps us to realise that we need to step in and help our body.

What you can do to help
A simple breathing technique can help – breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 4 and breathe out for 5.  Repeat until you feel calm.
Mindfulness can also help you to stay in the here and now, so if you notice that your thoughts are running away with you and you are starting to catastrophize, centre yourself by ‘noticing 5 things’ you can see, hear and feel in your environment.  Taking your focus away from the stressor will temporarily remove the threat and allow your body to calm itself and the fight or flight response to subside.

So next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, say to yourself, what am I thinking, feeling doing?  Do I need to help my body to calm down?  Tune in and see if it helps.

Working To Wellbeing (W2W) provides consultancy and intervention for health and wellbeing at work.  We provide wellbeing and rehabilitation services, supporting employees with physical health, mental health and long term conditions, the 3 key causes of presenteeism and absence. We join the dots between the physical and mental health issues that cause and perpetuate poor health.
Our specialist clinicians are highly trained to provide a truly integrated service that results in health behaviour change and optimum work capability.