It’s International Stress Awareness Week and in the midst of what can seem like a slew of awareness weeks, days and events, you could be forgiven for asking do we really need this one – after all, we all know what stress is, right? Well, maybe that’s part of the problem.

Stress is one of those conditions, isn’t it: we all know what it means, we’ve all experienced it to some degree, and we use the word quite casually. Worst of all, we consider stress to be just an inevitable part of life and as such, accept it and give little consideration to the serious detrimental health effects excessive long-term or chronic stress can have.

In lots of ways, stress is a natural response. When faced with a perceived threat, our brains go into the “fight, flight or freeze” mode which served to help our ancestors escape predators and nowadays might be activated by anything from a burgeoning to-do list or a major life event such as moving home, redundancy or bereavement. Any external event – usually a change of some sort – that potentially threatens our safety can meet with a stress response, to a lesser or greater degree, and this is quite normal.

What happens in our body is that the stress response activates the sympathetic nervous system, flooding the body with hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine. These give us a rush of energy and send blood to the muscles, preparing us to meet our challenger (fight) or run away (flight). You might experience a racing heart when that happens. We might also find that bodily functions like digestion are affected, because they’re deemed by the subconscious to not be required in that crisis moment, which is why lots of us experience an upset tummy when we’re stressed. Less common is the ‘freeze’ response, which can be experienced physiologically (eg holding the breath) or psychologically (procrastinating, avoiding tasks or feeling unable to act).

So far so normal, and in small amounts some stress can actually be beneficial. It’s called eustress and it helps us to hit the brakes when something unexpected happens on the road, or to achieve intense focus on a piece of work when we near a deadline. Without any stress in our lives at all, we are more prone to boredom, apathy, even depression.

Of course, just because stress is natural, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. While eustress can help us get things done, negative stress can have a serious impact not just emotionally but physically too. Those bodily responses of increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure are manageable for most people in very short bursts, but it’s not difficult to see that if they are experienced over a sustained period they can lead to serious health conditions including heart attack and stroke.

Unfortunately, we don’t always know we’re stressed, or we know we are but we accept it as just ‘part of life’ and carry on until it becomes the norm. This has perhaps never been more true than in 2020, when those external triggers or threats that cause stress have been plentiful: risks to health; job insecurity or loss (or overwork, depending on your field); changes to family relationships and caring responsibilities; loss of many of our usual coping mechanisms, from sport to social life; and in some cases, sadly, bereavement. In this environment there is a risk of existing in almost permanent ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode and becoming so used to it we don’t even notice.

Fortunately, our body does give us clues and there are some quick and simple tests we can do on ourselves and signs to look out for which indicate we are operating with negative levels of stress:

  • Pay attention (right now) to your shoulders: are they hunched, or do they feel tight? Let them droop and relax and notice the difference.
  • Pay attention to your breathing: don’t try to slow it down, just notice it. Shallow breathing or holding your breath can be signs of stress.
  • How are you sleeping? Stress can cause sleep disturbance and most of us need 6-8 hours of unbroken rest a night at least 3 or 4 nights a week. If you’re not achieving this, consider seeking help.
  • As mentioned, an upset tummy can be a sign of negative stress, as can headaches or other unexplained pain (though you should always see your GP to rule out a physical cause).
  • Some people’s stress shows on their skin, for example as eczema.

Emotionally and psychologically, too, there are signs that you may not immediately attribute to stress. You may feel hyper-sensitive, irritable and quicker to anger (or tears) than usual. You may feel overwhelmed and find it hard to concentrate, as you have too much on the go and don’t know where to start (finishing things can be a problem, too). If your behaviour is changing – for example, you are eating considerably more or less than normal, are drinking more alcohol, and/or withdrawing from loved ones and activities that give you pleasure – you may need to pay attention to the stress triggers in your life. If you ever feel hopeless or as though others would be better off without you, seek help right away.

Find out how you can help yourself to reduce your stress levels in our next blog ‘Stress – are we in denial? Part Two: Helping yourself’.

Written by Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling at Professional Help