The most common reason clients give for visiting me is stress, and even if it’s not stress, they are suffering with some sort of stress related illness. So, are we all killing ourselves slowly without even realising it, and what can we do to reverse the impact of stress?
Modern Day Disease
From a corporate background in Finance and a highly stressful job, I have first-hand experience of how much stress can affect you, and now use this knowledge to help other people. We are all living well enough and long enough to slowly fall apart, and the diseases that plague us are lifestyle diseases – a slow accumulation of damage that causes heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression and cardiovascular diseases.
Today’s challenges are very different from those experienced by our grand-parents, we no longer see diseases like scarlet fever or bubonic plague, so why are we so stressed? When we were cavemen, we developed a ‘fight or flight’ response to deal with dangerous situations, such as being chased by bears. Therefore, stress is not a bad thing, and our survival often depends on it.
In these situations, our bodies produce stress hormones, that shut down the brain and digestive processes, increase the blood to the muscles ready to fight or run away, and prepare the body for healing cuts and bruises. This was great when we did fight or run away, the body used these hormones in the danger period, and then hormone levels returned to normal. Simple.
In a modern world, the body can’t tell what is real danger and what is perceived danger, so the same hormones kick in from various causes; external circumstances such as being stuck in traffic and late for work, a looming deadline, exams, divorce, and family pressures, biological stress such as the flu or too much caffeine, or internal stress, for example, worrying too much.
These are stressful events in our lives that are not a threat to our survival but increase the stress related hormones in our bodies. However, there is no real way to burn this off, so the effect accumulates over the years and causes the damage discussed earlier.
The questions we need to ask are when does too much stress become harmful? Why is it our bodies can cope with some stressful situations, but others make us sick? Why are some people more vulnerable to stress related diseases than others?
The Breaking Point
In my experience, some stress can help with productivity, and some people work better under the pressure of a deadline, helping them to focus, but this only works up to a certain point. This point differs for all of us, and as a Holistic Therapist I look for early warning signs that stress is about to push clients over the breaking point.
There are four levels of stress:
Level 1 – we are habit driven and this is not a great place to be. We feel bored or unchallenged at work, and hence start to stagnate, lose interest or become lazy.
Level 2 – we are thriving. There is a great balance between demands and response. A good personal trainer will push you to this level, you are working to the edge to build strength, but not overloaded to cause muscle damage and fatigue. It’s a good place to be at work or home too. Things are challenging and interesting, but not exhausting. You enjoy the workload, and relationships are full of life and interesting.
Level 3 – demands placed upon you have exceeded your capacity to respond. This feels like trying to run a marathon when you have never run more than 2 miles before. Pressure at work is relentless, you can’t relax in the evening and often have to take work home with you. At home, someone in the family is over demanding, and there is no rest. Sleep is affected and in the long term, it starts to affect your health – we develop muscle disorders, insomnia, anxiety, depression, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and so on as you have significantly increased your vulnerability.
Level 4 – Delusion! You think you are doing well, you tell others you are doing well and thriving but you’re not. You’ve just stopped noticing! You have become so focussed on the task in the short term that you stopped noticing the small signals your body has been passing to you, stopped noticing others reactions and the world around you. Too much time spent at this level leads to unhappy life experiences. Once you stop maintaining a healthy life balance, you enter the ‘exhaustion’ funnel.
In levels 3 and 4, we stop finding time for ourselves and the activities we find relaxing such as listening to music, long walks outdoors, gentle reading, exercise etc. All of these activities help us to find a balance and support our lifestyle. We stop doing them as we see them as optional, but they are vital to our good health. Without time out, we burnout, and when all you have in your life is work/forced tasks, you continue to deplete your resources.
The key here is to notice the slide when things start to pile up. Notice the temptation to skip dinner with friends to work late. The ideas of going to the gym replaced with another assignment deadline. A long walk postponed for another demand on your time. When you notice these things, you can take action. if you are aware you have reached this stage, you should start to take action to put some balance back into your life
How do I manage stress?
Here are my Top 3 tips:
1 – Ensure the basic requirements are met – support from family and friends, good nutrition, water, and sleep. Are you getting enough and a good healthy balance of each right now? If not, it will cause stress in the most basic part of the brain. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and learn to say ‘No’ to extra demands on you time.
2 – Have a regular outlet for frustration - the best example of this is exercise, but different outlets can work well with different people. Try a hot bath, go for a walk, phone a friend for a chat, or listen to some of your favourite music instead.
3 – Find the positive in all situations, and be grateful for what you do have - No matter how bad the day, there is always something to be grateful for. Write these in a journal before you go to sleep, and drift off with a positive thought, maybe something good that happened during the day. Sound difficult? All situations can have a positive outcome, you just need to train your brain to see it. With practice, this becomes easier.
Stay positive and stop worrying about the things your can't control