What is stress? (Part 1)

Following on from National Stress Awareness month I thought I would put down some thoughts about stress. Thinking in a bit of detail about what it is, where it comes from and what we can all do to better manage it. In this first blog I’ll be focusing just on what it is, how common it is and how it can affect us.

Stress, we all talk about it…

But it can mean different things to different people. We use the word when relating to physical tension in our bodies, work or family related difficulties, things going on in friendships, significant life events or major accidents to name just a few. 
 

What the scientists say…

The most common use of the word ‘stress’ relates to a physical and psychological state linked to the body’s chemistry. It often affects how we think, feel and act as well as our physiology (how the body works). Experiencing something ‘stressful’ or threatening often prompts a release of particular hormones in the body. This threat can be something physical and in front of us, it can be something we are predicting might happen in the future, it can be about something that has already happened that we perceive to have a negative impact on us. In any of these examples, our body reacts the same way:
 
  • Tiger in the room = Stress response!
  • Worrying about a work conversation that has to happen later today and might be disruptive = Stress response!
  • Thinking about an argument with someone important to us last week = Stress response!
 
When we notice a something potentially stressful, a small part of the brain called the hypothalamus makes the body produce hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These enable us to prepare to deal with whatever the stressor might be.  It is a very old response that can be found in most animals on the planet. Often people talk about the fight or flight response. Other people have expanded on this to think about other reactions to perceived threat. I can thank Dr Deborah Lee (of Compassion Focused Therapy fame) for introducing a new version of the concept of FAFFing into my life:
 
  • Flight – getting out of there! Running or hiding from a threat. Arguably the best response; if you can get away from it, you should!
  • Fight – moving towards a threat, to argue, ‘attack’ or solve 
  • Appease – trying to calm or manage a threat through being nice or agreeing 
  • Freeze – disengage, go silent, hoping the threat will pass
 
In all of these cases, the hormones are present and prompt us to take action. Adrenaline increases heart rate, raises blood pressure and provides extra energy. Which action we take is thought to be mostly to do with our innate programming or biology. 
 

Ok in the short term…

Cortisol (the main stress hormone) also temporarily increases energy to help manage the threat. It can also disable other body functions (e.g. digestion) whilst we manage the perceived threat. This is where we start to split into two type of stress:
 
  • Immediate and short lived
  • Continuous and on-going
 
Within a short period of time the body will try to regulate itself – having dealt with the stressor or threat. When this happens the hormone levels fall and everything returns to ‘normal’. Therefore, stress in small bursts can be helpful; to motivate us, to help us deal with difficulties and problem solve solutions. However, when it is around too frequently it can become a problem. 
 
Stress responses that are too intense or prolonged mean our bodies are releasing stress hormones in really high quantities or over a really long period – which it is not really designed to do. These overwhelming or on-going responses can often impact the body for example, increasing headaches, stomach problems and IBS, high blood pressure and weakening our immune system. It can also lead to psychological difficulties such as anger, anxiety and fear and it has been linked clinically to anxiety and depression. 
 

How common is it?

It definitely depends on what you are talking about here. Everyone experiences some stress in their life so in some senses 100% of people have felt stressed. How chronic the stress is or intense a stressful event might be (e.g. a major accident) means our experience of stress can vary hugely. That said, due to the changes that can happen in our lives and the pressures of modern society and work patterns the experience of chronic, on-going stress seems to be increasing. One survey in 2017 by the American Psychological Association found that 40% of adults lie awake at night due to stress. That’s a lot of people. 
 
The good news is there is lots we can do to help notice what our ‘stressors are’ and manage our stress in a more helpful way and this will be the focus of the next two blogs. 
I hope this was useful or interesting. If you feel worried about any of the information here you can have a look at our resources page for contacts which might be helpful.
 
See you next time,
Pete