Last Updated 18 September, 2015

Stress

  What it is and how to cope with it

Stress affects people of all ages and from all walks of life. One in five people in Scotland has a problem with stress at any given time, and that figure is reflected around the world.

To have some pressure in our lives is normal and, indeed, unavoidable. But when there is too much pressure for too long and we don't get the chance to rest and recover, or when it becomes more than we can cope with, then our health can suffer.

This unpleasant reaction to too much pressure or other types of demand placed on us is called stress. Think of blood pressure - we all have it but when it gets high, we should do something about it - stress is just the same.

What is stress?

When we find ourselves under some kind of pressure, our bodies respond automatically by releasing adrenaline to ensure we are prepared for action and able to meet the challenge before us:

  • Muscles become tense.
  • Our breathing becomes faster and shallower in an effort to get more air into the body, we may feel breathless.
  • The heart races, pumping faster.
  • We feel like we want to run, yet legs might turn to jelly.
  • Our mind may race and we can sometimes feel dizzy and light-headed.
  • We can have difficulty swallowing.
  • We may feel sick or have a lack of appetite.
  • We shiver or sweat more than usual.

This automatic reaction to a threatening situation is known as the 'fight or flight' response. The body produces hormones, including one called adrenaline, which help prepare our bodies to either run away or to be poised and ready to react. These changes are short-lived and die away when the pressure or threat stops, but they are useful in helping us achieve our goals.

This is because the body's response sharpens our mental and physical skills, focuses our attention, fires us up and is generally very helpful in helping us cope with pressure.

We tend to think that stress comes from being too busy and pressured, but it can be just as difficult to cope when we are in a situation where we do not have enough to do. Being unemployed or in a boring job which we don't enjoy, can make us frustrated and stressed and we can find ourselves at a low ebb.

Stress affects everyone differently, for example:

The way stress may affect our thoughts:
we worry too much about things that we know do not merit such worry;
we find it hard to concentrate;
we have difficulty in making decisions.
The way stress may affect our feelings:
we feel worthless, hopeless and depressed at the prospect of never getting on top of things or finishing anything;
we have difficulty relaxing;
we constantly expect the worst to happen.
The way stress may affect our behaviour:
we are constantly tired and on edge, and irritable with those around us;
minor interruptions, delays or frustrations can make us irritated, distressed or angry and that we become very emotional at the slightest upset;
we lose interest in food or over eat or may smoke or drink too much.
The way stress may affect our body:
We have panic attacks;
Our usual sleep pattern becomes disturbed, so that we find it hard to fall asleep, or need more sleep;
We suffer from physical health problems like headaches, indigestion or a sore back;
We lose our sex drive.

What causes stress?

If we look at our lives, we may be able to identify particular areas of our lives which can cause stress. These may include:

  • Problems with relationships - with a spouse or partner, children, parents, friends, colleagues or neighbours.
  • Money worries.
  • Coping with unemployment or redundancy.
  • Problems at work - changes to your job, an excessive workload, anxiety about a promotion or job security.
  • Worries about personal health or the health of those close to us.
  • Feeling isolated or lonely, lacking support.
  • Being abused, harassed or discriminated against.
  • Lacking control over our lives.

Some of these things we cannot foresee. They happen to us out of the blue. Others are unavoidable, events or changes over which we have little control. We may fall into the trap of feeling that we should be able to cope, no matter what has happened. Also, we may be making high demands on ourselves by aiming to achieve certain things either at work or at home. Having high standards that we cannot meet may put ourselves under pressure to do better. This can produce an enormous amount of stress.

What you can do

Learn to accept that there are very real reasons for feeling stressed. What works for each person may be different, but these are some things that may help:

  • Work out what it is that is making you feel stressed and what you can do about it. Identify what you cannot change, or not change immediately, and what you can change.
  • Relieving stress is about how you handle it. Relaxation is an important factor in releasing tense muscles and clearing and calming the mind. See your doctor or counsellor to find out more about relaxation techniques.
  • Allow yourself a breathing space. Treat yourself to something you enjoy.
  • Physical activity can boost your mood, self-esteem and body image, improve sleep and reduce reactions to stress. Exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety and treat depression. See your doctor if you have concerns about your health before embarking on a new exercise programme.
  • Try to eat and drink sensibly. Drink, drugs and cigarettes in excess are not good solutions in the short or long-term.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, not only in coffee and tea but also in fizzy drinks and high-energy drinks.
  • Find someone you can talk to and use their support to talk through your feelings.
  • Pace yourself and tackle one thing at a time. Keep a list and tick things off.
  • Be realistic about what you expect of yourself. Learn to say 'no' to other people, at least some of the time.

Finally, remember to make time for doing something you enjoy. Giving yourself some space is as important as getting all those jobs done.

Rowan Consultancy

Personal and Organisational Growth and Development: in the HOME, in BUSINESS, in the COMMUNITY.

Rowan Consultancy, 4 Kinnoull Street, Perth, PH1 5EN. +44(0)1738 562005