Do you often feel stressed? How do you know? What do you feel? How do you feel? What do you see and hear?
The word stress is one that you’ll probably hear many times these days, but its meaning is probably more complex and controversial than you may imagine.
The word stress comes from the Latin word stringere, meaning to draw tight. This is a good analogy, as it’s true meaning is to put strain on something. When thinking of it in relation to you, it relates to anything that challenges your body and takes it out of its comfort zone. This could be a mental stress, challenging your brain, a physical stress challenging your body, or both.
When most people think of and use the word stress these days, it generally carries a negative meaning, yet that does not always have to be the case. There are in fact two distinct types of stress:
This is good stress. What’s that you say? How can stress be good? Well let’s look at a few examples.
Exercise - you know it’s good for you, or you do if you’ve been reading the balance blog and Facebook posts! Exercise involves physical exertion, placing stress upon your body. In fact, one of the key principles of exercise that any fitness professional can tell you about is called overload. In simple terms, your body will not adapt and get fitter unless you challenge it. Why would it? If you’ve ever taken up exercise, you’ll know that feeling of discomfort in the first few sessions, then after a while you don’t find it so hard. You have stressed your body enough that it’s decided to change, primarily because it’s quite lazy and doesn’t want to have to work hard. Suddenly you find the same exercise session pretty easy, and the only way to get more changes from your body is, you guessed it, to work harder still. Of course, you need to do this sensibly and gradually or you place your body under too much stress and increase the likelihood of overtraining and injury.
Challenge - ever had a job that was just too easy and you were bored? Many of you will have experienced this and will have spent time trying to get promoted or looking for a career change. You’re basically trying deliberately to add more stress to yourself, but that’s because you need it and want it. Imagine if there was no challenge to life, what would be the motivation to continue? It could easily be argued that stress is actually what keeps you alive.
However, as with all things in life, it’s all about balance. Too much stress, or unwanted stresses can have a negative impact.
This is the term for bad stress, any stressor that puts your body under too much strain or has a negative effect. This is what most people think of when they use the term stress.
What causes distress?
- Work - being overworked, not enjoying your job, demanding deadlines, pressure passed on by your boss or by targets set for your team, bonus schemes, long hours, there’s a whole host of reasons why work can stress people both mentally and physically.
- Money - life these days can be expensive and throws up unexpected costs when the car breaks down or a utility bill is bigger than you thought.
- Family life - it’s hard to get on with the people you love all the time. Even when you do, you want to look after them and time apart, exam pressure for children, job interviews, university placements, holidays, illness and a million other things can make life feel complicated and stressful.
- Lack of sleep, too much exercise, exposure to electrical and chemical radiation, taking exams, and even sitting down place stresses on your body, the latter putting your knee joint under strain by tightening the muscles that attach around it.
Whether you are affected by stress (I mean distress) depends on a number of things:
1) Your balance of eustress and distress.
2) The coping mechanisms you have in place.
Let’s have a look at these and see what can be done. Firstly, it can be useful for you to identify all of the things that create good stress and bad stress in your life. Make a list like the one below.
My gym visits
Taking exams for my courses
Rehearsing for a play that you’re going to be appearing in
Preparing to go self-employed
Lack of sleep
Getting the kids to school on time in the morning
Flying on holiday next week and hate flying
Fitting in visits to the family around after-school clubs, visits to the doctors, going shopping, picking up a prescription, posting your tax return on time and a million other things you struggle to make time for
Spending 10 hours a day sat in front of a computer
Now you’ve got your list, don’t get stressed if you think you’ve missed something, you can add it at another time, it’s worth looking at the balance of good and bad and asking yourself two questions:
1) Can I add more things that will give me eustress to my life?
2) How can I manage or remove the things that cause me distress?
What can I do to give me more eustress?
- Take up yoga or meditate
- Go for a walk outside at lunchtimes or at least get away from my desk more often
- Book a race to raise money for charity
- Spend time playing sports with my children
- Go to sleep half an hour earlier
These are just a few examples, you’ll have your own that you can come up with.
What about removing distress? Some would call it stress management or stress reduction, you can call it distress disposal, Fred or whatever you like that makes most sense to you. Let’s choose one of the causes of distress from above and look at ways to reduce it; in this case the fear or hatred of flying. Hate is a strong word so it must be pretty stressful. So what can you do to manage this stress?
1) Avoidance - in this case don’t fly. Go on holiday in the UK? Nah, no sunshine! Drive and take the ferry? Too far and would take up half the holiday.
2) Drink - many choose this as a way to remove stress as it makes them feel relaxed. You need to ask yourself though, is it a good method? One or two drinks may supply an instant feeling of relaxation as the alcohol acts on the nervous system, any more though and guess what, you’re actually placing your body under distress as it then has to cope with the increased level of toxins in the body and the dehydration. Your liver and other organs end up stressed and long-term this won’t be a good solution for removal of stress, you simply replace one stress with another. Some go even further in times of stress and take drugs, the consequences of which are much the same if not even more severe. Getting out of it is not a great way to get over it.
3) Distraction - I know, I’ll read a book, listen to music, do a puzzle, plan a presentation, schedule my exercise for the next 12 weeks before my race. This is a great option if it works, as it uses eustress methods to overcome distress.
4) Rationalise - I could read up about the statistical likelihood of being involved in a plane crash, and reassure myself that I’m far more at risk statistically when going for a walk than I am when flying.
5) Mind tricks - I could use hypnosis, have counselling, practice meditation or anything else that I thought may help me to overcome or allay my fears.
As you can see, I have options open to me and this is a good thing, as it means I can take action and do something. Try it for yourself, pick one of the things that cause you distress and make list of methods you could use to remove or manage this. You can try them all or even use just one of them, it really is up to you. The key thing you need to ask yourself though is, will the things I have written down have a positive impact on the health of my mind and body, or will they cause me further distress? Opt for the ones that have a positive impact. Smoking, alcohol and junk foods are common ‘stress relief’ methods employed by millions of people across the world, but they’re not effective because they end up loading different and equally harmful stresses onto the body.
The advice above serves only to help you manage stresses you feel you are able to control without seeking further help. What you may have discovered by doing this task is that there are some stresses in your life that you feel are deep-seated, that you can’t think of a way to remove or that you feel are causing you real harm. If this is the case, you should seek medical advice in the first instance and then work with your GP to find suitable solutions to balance your stresses and improve your health.
Let’s have a quick re-cap:
- Stress can be both good and bad for you. You need good stresses in your life to motivate you, but too much stress or negative stresses can affect you both physically and mentally.
- Spend time considering the balance of your good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Do you need to take action to redress this?
- Add as many things to your life as you can tun cause eustress - exercise, get outside, listen to music, dance, paint, read, have a bath, spend time with friends, go for promotion, set yourself a challenge, whatever it is that you personally find challenging but enjoyable.
- Identify ways in which you can manage or overcome things causing you distress. Sense check these to ensure that they themselves will not cause you further physical or mental distress. Choose realistic changes that will help bring you back into balance.
- Accept that 'stress’ is a part of your life, now and forever but recognise it is essential to your life. It will come and go, rise and fall, but you need to find the stress management techniques that work best for you.
- Aways seek medical advice if you feel a stress is having a negative consequence on your mental or physical wellbeing. Your GP can discuss a range of options available to you that best suit your needs and circumstances.