Stress is a part of everyday life and comes from a number of places: the pressure of work, maintaining relationships, conflict, illness, managing finances, time constraints, internal pressures and expectations, children and concerns about the world around us. Anywhere really! Stress is not only generated by what is happening to us but also how we perceive what is happening to us and is therefore subjective. For example, to some people, social occasions are something to be enjoyed and therefore unlikely to generate a stress response. However to another person they may be the source of much angst. In which case your mind perceives the event as threatening and you feel “stressed”. Mostly we are able to cope well with a degree of stress and a certain amount is normal. However there will be times in life when the stress feels unmanageable and affects our quality of life. When stress overwhelms us we can begin to have a number of physical, mental and emotional symptoms.
An analogy often used when talking about stress is that of a dam or water tank that can only hold a limited amount of water. Once full it will burst or overflow. So our capacity to handle stress involves the size or out tank and how thick the walls are (individual resilience), how full the tank is already (based on previous and current life experiences) and how effective our release valves are (our stress management strategies). If your tank is already quite full it may not take much for you to “overflow” and even something like an extra bill or a parking fine could lead you to feel completely overwhelmed. Conversely if you have had an extended period of relaxation your capacity to cope with the same events would be entirely different. Your tank is likely to feel emptier.
What is stress?
Stress is where you feel an increased level of pressure or tension on/within yourself. Short bursts of stress or fear are normal. We were designed to respond mentally and physically to stressful events as they arise but then return to baseline in between where we restore normal physiological functioning and come off “high alert”.
When our mind perceives something as threatening our sympathetic nervous system activates a “fight/flight/freeze” response. Our system becomes flooded initially with adrenaline and then cortisol, allowing us to respond quickly to the threat and then in a more sustained way if it continues. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, our vessels constrict and blood is directed to where it is needed imminently and away from other areas such as our digestive system and skin. Our blood sugar levels rise in order to make energy available for our bodies. Our focus narrows to be threat-specific and filters out all other information. Our bodies and minds go into life-saving mode.
All of this is helpful if you actually need to run or fight, however persistently activating these systems over non-life threatening situations takes its toll on us.
The impact of chronically being on “high alert”
Look at the fight/flight/freeze process described above. If you are repeatedly entering into this state you can experience one, more or all of the following things:
Physical symptoms: tense muscles; headaches; gastrointestinal problems such as indigestion, nausea, constipation or diarrhoea; increased blood pressure; elevated heart rate; muscles tremors and eventually exhaustion.
Mental Symptoms: hypervigilance; narrowed focus; poor sleep; increased rumination; eventually fatigued and foggy.
Emotional symptoms: worried; anxious; oversensitive and more tearful than usual; irritable; angry and possibly even paranoid.
How do we address problems with stress?
There are different ways to address stress, depending on the nature of the underlying issue, such as:
- Problem solving
- Improved communication
- Asking for help/talking to someone
- Reduce exposure to triggers
- Reduce unhelpful coping strategies, such as binge eating, drug and alcohol use, drinking too much caffeine.
- Mindfulness and Meditation
However the strategies that this article is focussing on are Relaxation Skills and Relaxation Training.
Why is relaxation training so important?
Relaxation training addresses some of the physiological issues related to the “fight/flight/freeze” response discussed above. Engaging a relaxation response, which involves activating your parasympathetic nervous system, essentially does the opposite to the stress response. It tells our body to “calm down”. Relaxation strategies can slow your heart rate and breathing, lower blood pressure, lower circulating levels of adrenaline and cortisol and calm your mind, allowing you to think more clearly. Long term they can also help to improve sleep if done regularly.
So how do we do this? The following things can initiate a relaxation response:
- Calm breathing, often to a count (such as in for 4, hold for 2 and out for 4)
- Progressive muscle relaxation exercises
- Visualisation exercises
- Create space for calm and quiet in your life. It is hard to initiate a relaxation response when you feel perpetually under demand or overscheduled.
- Other things that can initiate a relaxation response include listening to calming music, yoga, meditation (including mindfulness)*, hypnotherapy and massage.
Many people find they cannot do these things on their own initially and benefit from guided exercises, at least when they’re learning. The above skills can be learnt in a variety of settings, such as a yoga or meditation class, and can also be learnt in therapy or counselling. Within a therapeutic setting a counsellor can help you to establish the nature of your problems with stress and then also help to train you in some of the skills listed above.
It is best to approach relaxation skills training like any other training program that requires repetition and integration into your routine, at least initially. If you have not practised the exercises regularly it will be hard to use these skills when you are in the middle of a very stressful situation. However, once you have practised for even a short period these skills will become easier and you will be able to use them in a more reflexive way.
If you have problems managing your stress or would like help learning relaxation skills, please contact Virginia on 0476 674 094 or firstname.lastname@example.org
*Mindfulness meditation and relaxation are not the same thing. Meditation may or may not induce relaxation, but has numerous other benefits that will be discussed in another article.Leave a reply →