How often in the ‘Hello, how are you?’ parts of your everyday conversations does the word “stressed” come up? If you’re anything like me, the answer is: often! For many of us, stress is a regular, and mostly unwelcome, companion. So today we’re going to talk about five things you should know about stress. Not to make you feel worse, but rather to help you feel better!
Within our positive mental health training and coaching at Head Set Go! (the sister site of this blog), we try to find ways to help everyday people improve their personal wellbeing and execute positive change in their own lives. Stress is a lead contributor to your mental state. Because of that, it’s useful to know something about what it is and how it works. As well as how to limit the negative impacts.
We’re going to look at five things you should know about stress in a general way today, as a kind of ‘setting the scene’ for dealing with more specific aspects over the following few weeks. You may know some of these already. Are you ready to check your awareness of some key facts?
1. Stress is a feeling in your body, but it’s not an emotion
The first thing you should understand about stress is that although we say, “I’m just feeling SO stressed!” stress isn’t actually an emotional state in the same way happiness or anger is. Stress isn’t an emotion. Instead, stress is a message sent from your five senses to your brain about the state of your body. Your senses are permanently monitoring your environment in order to keep you safe, and when they start receiving indications of change they send signals to your brain about it.
The majority of the time they’re monitoring what’s happening around us, our senses aren’t picking up ‘danger’ signals. As a result, we’ve learnt to pay scant regard to the way our body’s operating. The moments you identify as feeling stressed are the rare occasions where your body yells loudly enough for you to have to pay attention. It’s your eyes – or ears, or hands or whatever’s way of trying to tell you ‘Watch out! This could be dangerous!!’
2. It’s also a story in your head
Once your sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell have directed their feedback signals to your head, the thinking and reacting part of your brain kicks in. Pretty much like a computer, it does a quick scan of your emotional memory, knowledge and previous experiences to find where it can locate matches or near matches to the current context. Based on what it finds, decisions are made about what to do regarding your present situation. Sometimes that’s to run away, sometimes it’s to stay and fight, sometimes it’s a mix of both. But the point is, what’s happening is you’re finding a way to make meaning of what’s going on and come out the other side.
Of course, most of the time all this happens without us having a clue about it! It’s subconscious, or beneath our awareness. Our bodies are, after all, really quite impressive. Your senses feed your brain information, which it processes, then decides the next course of action based on the meaning, or story, it’s made from the combination of information and processing.
It is possible for you to make a conscious choice to take over this process. In fact, one of the ways to handle your stress levels is to do just that. But most of us don’t. It just happens and we feel it’s out of our control. So we feel stressed!
Summary: the message from your senses, combined with the story in your head, makes for stress.
3. It’s not always bad
Another thing you should know about stress is that, despite what most of us believe, stress isn’t always bad. As long as the stress we’re under isn’t constant, it contributes to the excitement in our lives. If everything that happened was always predictable and within our sense of normality and capability, most of us would be bored witless.
And some things bring good along with the stress. Organising a wedding or starting uni can be hard, but that stress in the early stages is compensated by your enjoyment later.
A little tension can also help us perform better. The run of chemicals triggered by stress puts our senses on high alert and sharpens our reactions and awareness. Great for a sports game or even an exam. Also, some of us need the pressure of a deadline to get almost anything done! So long as the task being ticked off contributes to your sense of wellness, stress in that context isn’t bad at all.
4. You’re supposed to stretch and retract with it
One thing we know about stress from the research is that you’re only supposed to have it in little bursts. It’s ok if things stress you and make you feel stretched – but after a time, you’re also supposed to pull back and normalise. In other words, stress is supposed to be cyclical. High stress moments need to be followed by low stress ones.
The part we do poorly as a culture’s the releasing of tension. We seem to have convinced ourselves that resting from high activity and stress is boring and unnecessary. We’re wrong. I suspect one of the reasons we’re so stressed as a society (more on that from last week!) is that we never stop. And even when we do, we keep a little something happening in the background. Neither our bodies nor our brains are machines, and they need to rest.
What we know about stress is that it’s bad only if you never get a break from it! Constant days, weeks, months or even years without adequate pulling back before stretching out again tips you over into chronic stage two and three stress. Which have so many potential health risks attached it’s scary!
5. It’s a part of life
It’d be tempting, based on what we’ve just considered, to run away screaming or perhaps have a breakdown immediately over all this tension. After all, if it’s going to happen, why fight it? Stress is a part of our lives, like it or not.
Are we just victims? As I’ve talked with people, some would seem to think so. I don’t happen to agree. I think all our mental health can be divided into smaller segments, which we can then learn to manage and control. If we work on how to think about, understand and limit stress, we’ll improve our lives rather than handicap them.
Since stress isn’t going away any time soon, we’d be smart to learn to manage it. And it can be done. That’s my line.
Now you know what you know about stress, what should you do?
Raising your awareness about stress and how it might affect you’s the first step to being able to control it. So, lock the five things we’ve considered today into your brain. Next, I suggest keeping a loose watch on your thinking over the coming week to catch what your current stress story is. Are you feeling energised or overloaded by what’s going on? What thoughts come unbidden from the deeper parts of your brain about it? How are you reacting to stressful moments? If you haven’t filled in our survey, we’d love to hear from you about your experience, too.
We’ll be looking at various other aspects of stress over the rest of this month, in an attempt to help you not just know about stress but handle it better. Please follow along with us both here and on social media, especially our Facebook page. Be sure to add your comments and insights too, because we can all learn together. I’m looking forward to it – let’s un-stress together.
Be well. Sharon