Stress is a part of life that we all encounter from time to time. A little stress can be helpful, kicking us into action to get things done; but too much can affect us both mentally and physically. Stress is the second major cause of illness at work after back pain, and is becoming more and more of an issue in today's culture.
In a stressful situation our brains release a range of 'stress chemicals' such as cortisol and adrenaline to provoke a fight-or-flight reaction. The fight reaction will have us standing up, ready to fight for our lives, while the flight reaction encourages us to flee from danger and protect ourselves. When we are immobile (for example in an office or car) these stress chemicals can build up and affect our immune system and blood pressure.
Everybody is unique and stress affects people in different ways - some thrive off it, while others find it incredibly difficult to deal with. How we react to stress depends on a variety of factors, including our personal temperament and the type of stress we're dealing with.
In life we generally encounter two types of stress; the first is the constant stream of everyday pressures like deadlines and bills, and the second is the sudden rush of stress brought on by one-off events such as death, moving house or divorce.
On this page
- Stress symptoms
- Causes of stress
- When is the best time to seek help?
- Treatment for stress and how a counsellor could help
When you are feeling stressed, you will be affected both emotionally and physically. While everyone reacts differently, here are some common stress symptoms:
- Anger or snappiness - feeling easily agitated and frustrated with those around you.
- Crying - feeling overwhelmed, teary or over-emotional.
- Anxiety - feeling anxious for no particular reason or feeling anxious about every-day things.
- Low self-esteem - feeling low, unattractive or unsatisfied.
- Avoiding others - wanting to be alone and avoiding social situations.
- Using unhealthy coping methods such as smoking, drinking and drug taking - stress often makes us seek comfort in unhealthy ways.
- Sleeplessness - stress can make our minds race and can make switching off at night near on impossible.
- Digestive problems - our body's fight-or-flight reaction can cause our digestive systems to slow down or even inflame, leading to problems such as constipation or diarrhoea.
- Dizziness and sweating - this occurs when chemicals are released during the body's fight-or-flight reaction.
- Chest pains or palpitations - stress may aggravate heart conditions or provoke palpitations as the heart beats faster when under stress.
Causes of stress
Most people will find themselves suffering from stress at some point in their lives and depending on your personality, you may find yourself more susceptible than others. Those who strive to succeed at all costs and those who look to please others may find themselves less able to cope.
One of the most common causes of stress is feeling powerless. Feeling unable to control or change our lives in the way we want is one of the modern world's biggest concerns.
Big changes in your life can also leave you feeling stressed and anxious, even if they are positive changes. Typical changes that can cause stress include having a baby, marriage, moving house, bereavement or illness.
Long-term circumstantial problems also contribute to our daily stress levels; for example, issues surrounding family, relationships, work issues, unemployment and poverty can all leave us feeling stressed.
When is the best time to seek help?
Stress is a problem that feeds on itself and lowers your ability to cope - so the sooner you seek help, the better. The stigma of mental illness means many are reluctant to get the help they need, sadly this will only encourage a destructive cycle of stress, anxiety and depression. Be sure to contact your local health practitioner if:
- Stress (and the effects of stress) are dominating your life.
- Stress is affecting you physically to the point that you feel unwell.
- You are abusing alcohol or taking drugs to cope.
- You are experiencing angry outbursts that are affecting those around you.
Treatment for stress and how a counsellor could help
Sadly there are no quick fixes when it comes to treating stress, however getting the appropriate treatment will help you deal with stress management in the long-term. Acknowledging the issue is your first step; many of us choose to bury our heads in the sand, accepting our daily stresses as a part of life. Once you acknowledge that you are not OK and need support, you will find the rest falls into place.
Start off with a visit to your GP - they will be able to assess the severity of the problem and may recommend talking therapies or counselling. Talking through the issues you are facing with a counsellor can help you to deal with any underlying issues that are affecting your stress levels such as low self-esteem. Your counsellor may also be able to identify your personal stress triggers and can talk you through ways of dealing with them.
Relaxation techniques are often encouraged and are a great way to alleviate tension in both your body and your mind. Mindfulness is another technique being used for stress and depression by many - the concept involves deep breathing exercises and focusing on the present. By eliminating thoughts about the past or future, mindfulness helps reduce unnecessary stress and focuses on the here and now.
Whilst we cannot control certain stressful situations in life, we can control the way we react to them. One of the key ways of dealing with stress is learning how to manage it. This can be done in various ways...
Recognise stress triggers
Recognising what triggers stress for you is an important part of managing the way you react. Knowing what is likely to make you feel stressed, and recognising it before it happens will give you a head start in managing your response. If you are unsure what is triggering your stress, try keeping a 'stress diary'. Note down any stressful situations you encounter and write down how you felt at the time. This will help you see which situations affect you the most.
Physical activity will help you use up those hormones released when you feel stressed and will relax tense muscles, which in turn will help improve your sleep. On top of this, exercise also makes the brain produce endorphins - chemicals which promote a sense of wellbeing.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet can improve energy levels, helping you feel more alert and able to cope with stress. Try to avoid reaching for sugary snacks when feeling under pressure; they may give you a burst of energy to start with, but this will closely be followed by a crash, which will only intensify feelings of stress.
Get enough sleep
Trying to get enough sleep can be hard if you are feeling stressed, but getting adequate sleep will help calm your mind and alleviate symptoms. If you are struggling to fall asleep, try writing any worries down in a diary before going to bed. By recording your worries on paper you may find yourself more able to switch off. Taking regular physical exercise and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and TV at night are other tips for getting a good night's sleep.
Set realistic goals
Time management can be a big source of stress; by prioritising goals you want to achieve in a reasonable time period - you should feel more in control. Be sure to include rest periods when setting your goals, nobody can work full throttle all the time - give yourself permission to take some time out.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Currently there are no official rules or regulations stipulating what level of training a counsellor dealing with stress needs. There are however several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors to improve their knowledge of a particular area, so for peace of mind you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in issues regarding stress.
The NHS recommends self-help stress management support groups and/or counselling to help cope with stress. You can find more information about managing stress on the NHS Choices website.
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Content written/edited by Denise Pickup BACP (Accred) in 2008. All content displayed on Counselling Directory is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.
Whilst we endeavor to ensure all information is accurate, Counselling Directory make no representations or warranties of any kind, whether express or implied, as to the accuracy of the information included within the website. Any dependence you place on such information is therefore strictly at your own risk.
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