But what is stress exactly?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Stephen Davy, MA (Oxon), Dip Couns, MBACP (Accred)
6th August, 2012
Life in a big city has always been hectic and seems to be becoming increasingly stressful. We have to fit friends, work, family demands, housework, paperwork and commuting into our daily schedule. We may have problems with debt, relationship issues, family issues – the list is never-ending.
On top of this employers are demanding more from their staff and trying to save money by having employees cover tasks which used to be done by two or more people.
But what is stress exactly?
Stress is a natural reaction of our body to a perceived threat. It enables us to react swiftly when, for example, we need to brake our car to avoid another car or someone crossing the road.
We also react in the same way if the threat is internal rather than external. This means worried thoughts about whether you can finish your presentation in time, create the same reactions in your body as outside physical threats.
Some of the reactions of our bodies to mental or physical stress are:
• Tension in the neck or shoulders.
• Increased heart-rate.
• Feeling tense or sick in your stomach.
• Inability to sleep.
• Feeling negative.
• Uncharacteristic outbursts of anger.
And there are many more!
The more stressed you get, the more intense these physical reactions become. And the stress hormones don’t subside when they aren’t necessary any more. They continue to circulate in our bodies.
Our minds increase our stress.
Our minds go round and round on loops. Often, we imagine the worst possible outcome.
Or sometimes, we may go the route of avoidance, hoping that problems will vanish of their own accord. We choose to ignore the problem and try not to think about it. Of course this doesn't really work. The worry comes back to us in the middle of the night. And our practical problems very often get worse.
What can we do about stress?
Different things help different people. We can:
1. Exercise to ease the tensions in our bodies.
2. Improve our sleep and diet.
3. Take time out to relax in whatever way works best for us.
4. Talk through our worries with a friend.
Noticing what is happening.
Noticing what is triggering your stress can be hugely beneficial. Notice the outer causes and the inner ones – your worries – too.
An outer cause might be that leaving the house five minutes after your usual time in the morning means you get more and more panicked. You run along the tube platforms and by the time you arrive at work you are already frazzled.
Inner causes of stress are often patterns of thoughts which escalate out of all proportion with their causes. In the example above, instead of being rational about being late (it happens to most of us; it's only five minutes late, etc.), we imagine the very worst. We imagine being sacked or humiliated in front of the team.
Many people have benefited from 'Mindfulness Training'.
Mindfulness, which is based on meditation, is essentially taking time out to sit still and breathe. You notice your breath coming in and going out. You notice the sensations in your body. You notice your thoughts. You don't try to do anything. It's particularly important not to try to shut your thoughts off – it won’t work!
When we notice our bodies and minds and stop trying to force them into overdrive, we begin to relax. It may sound strange, but when you notice your clenched shoulders, without trying to do anything to them, they start to unclench. Just try it!
The same goes for our thoughts. Just noticing how your thoughts go round and round is the first step to changing them. Often one thought leads irrationally to another, taking our worries to the next level.
When we stop and see this happening we can begin create space inside ourselves.
For example, you may be writing a presentation which is difficult and has a deadline. You imagine not finishing the work in time, being hauled in by your manager or people watching your presentation and yawning.
Noticing this escalating pattern of thought means you have knowledge, knowledge about yourself. This kind of knowledge is vital. Awareness is the key to making things change inside us.
Sometimes awareness on its own changes our thought patterns, just as awareness of our tense shoulders helped them to relax.
Once we have awareness we can also choose to think differently. Will you really be sacked if you are ten minutes late? Will your presentation really be that dreadful? Rational thought interrupts our thought cycles in their tracks and is a weapon in our armoury against stress.
Make mindfulness a habit.
If mindfulness sounds like something that might benefit you, it’s important to make it a habit. This may seem impossible if you already have a hectic day, but you need only introduce ten minutes of sitting with your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, into your morning routine. It isn’t much time and it can make a huge difference to your sense of well-being.
It is also something you can do for yourself, giving you a feeling of being in charge of something - your inner state – when many other things in your life are out of your control.
To pursue this option further, there are also mindfulness trainings you can go to. Or there are centres where you can practice meditation, if that appeals to you. The London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green has regular evening sessions for beginners and for those who are more experienced.
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