Everything you need to know about stress
Stress can be a disruptive force for many of us. The World Health Organisation refers to stress as the "health epidemic of the 21st century". But understanding why we feel stressed can help us take proactive steps towards coping better with the demands we face in our lives.
What is stress?
We use the word "stress" to describe a variety of different scenarios and situations. But what is it? Dr Hans Selye introduced the modern idea of stress in the 1950s and defined it as, "the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions".
Stress is a physical and psychological response to demands placed upon us. Our response to demand, therefore our feelings of stress, can vary, depending on our perception of the demand itself.
We can also feel stressed when we think we don't have the necessary resources to meet the demands we face. Things like fatigue, hunger, conflict, uncertainty, insufficient or ineffective social support, and the impact of other stressors, can all deplete our resources and make us more prone to the negative symptoms associated with stress.
How does stress manifest itself?
Stress is a normal, healthy reaction. In fact, some stress can make us energised, alert, and motivated. Stress can push us through situations that may be nerve-racking or challenging.
It is when we don’t listen to the warning signs or when the stress goes on for too long, is too strong or without respite that it becomes a problem. Stress can manifest as physiological responses such as panic attacks, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, and poor concentration. It can also lead to emotional reactions like irritability, low mood, hopelessness, and despair. When we experience chronic stress, our physical health and our mental health can suffer.
However, if we feel equipped with the right resources to meet the demands we face, then we are less likely to be negatively impacted by them. Research shows that the act of perceiving a demand as something we can handle and even grow from reduces the intensity of the stress response and supports our wellbeing in the long run.
How can everyday choices affect stress?
Stress is a normal part of life for many of us. It's important to highlight how our daily lifestyle choices can offset its impact.
Studies show that a healthy lifestyle can act as a buffer against the negative impacts of stress. Studies show that although accumulated stress can lead to accelerated cellular ageing, healthy eating, good sleep, and regular exercise can help to reduce this effect.
The Importance of Mindset
When we consider that stress arises more from how we perceive our circumstances, rather than the events themselves, we begin to understand the power of our beliefs. Consider these two mindsets that can help transform our relationship to the everyday challenges we face:
Is when we believe that stressful events can help us grow and learn. A growth mindset helps us mitigate feelings of threat and the stress response associated with it. Adopting a growth mindset in the face of stress also helps bring more meaning and purpose to our lives.
Stress-related arousal response
Perceiving arousal symptoms such as an elevated heartbeat or increased breathing rate as enhancing, rather than debilitating, can reduce cortisol reactivity and boost the release of protective hormones in our body and brain.
We will have good days and bad days, but knowing that we can take steps towards supporting our mental wellbeing when faced with stress can be helpful.
What is the best way to cope with stress?
You may like to identify what is causing your stress and solve that problem directly? Maybe you prefer to lean on your friends for emotional support, or cultivate acceptance of your stress through meditation? Or, perhaps you prefer to ignore your stress altogether and do something fun or distracting instead? However you choose to respond to your stress; it will fit into one or more different coping categories. Some important ones include the following:
- Active vs Passive
- Problem-focused vs Emotion-focused
- Cognitive vs Behavioural
- Approach vs Avoidant
In fact, within each of these broader categories, there are numerous approaches of coping, all of which will be more or less useful, depending on the situation. As humans, we all tend to have our own favoured coping styles, but the ability to apply these flexibly to any given situation is key. Coping flexibility describes the ability to identify and replace an ineffective coping strategy with a more effective one and is shown to help combat stress and improve our mental health.
How can we respond more flexibly to our difficulties, our stresses, and our lives?
1. Increase our understanding of mental health
Learning about common problems, including stress, and the different coping strategies available to us empowers us to look after our minds.
2. Track our mental health
Checking-in regularly with how we're feeling, and noting any contributing factors that may be involved can help us reflect on what may be causing our stress.
3. Practise being present
By improving our capacity to stay present and aware when we feel stressed, we can create a little more space between ourselves and our reactions.
At Unmind, we empower people towards all three of the above through our learning and development programmes, our daily mood tracker, and our array of mindfulness practices and other mental wellbeing tools.