Like it or not, stress is part of our daily lives. Most of us pay far too little attention to it, perhaps only complaining about the odd tension headache or tight shoulders, while putting on a brave face and soldiering on.
But when about when chronic fatigue coupled with insomnia and constant anxiety rules the day? And you can’t switch off but don’t have the motivation to carry on? This is when you know your stress is getting out of control.
What can you do?
There’s lots of information and advice about ways to cope with stress. Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol (the very crutches you may be relying on to get by), doing more exercise, getting more sleep and adopting relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation are regularly conveyed as cure-alls for stress.
They’re all great lifestyle tips. In fact, all of them (even in isolation) will go some way to help you achieve a better work-life balance and reduce the physiological implications of stress.
Talking therapies are another tool for dealing with stress. Talking is, in fact, a highly effective, though often under-reported, way of coping with stress. More importantly, it’s a means to recognize individual patterns of behavior that can lead you into stressful situations.
The Physiological Implications of Stress
Stress is the body’s reaction to a harmful situation. A chemical reaction occurs in the body causing the release of hormones. It’s what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Physically, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, blood pressure rises, and muscles tighten. You are in ‘ready to protect yourself or run’ mode. While a little stress is OK – even good for you – experiencing prolonged stress can lead to chronic physical illness and mental breakdown.
Common mental or emotional symptoms of prolonged stress include:
- Easily agitated, moody or tearful
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty relaxing, racing thoughts
- Low self-esteem
- Avoiding others
Common physical symptoms of prolonged stress include:
- Muscle aches
- Upset stomach
- Chest pain – palpitations, rapid or fluttering heartbeat
- Low libido
- Frequent colds and infections
- Clenched jaw
- Dry mouth, difficulty swallowing
- Increased or decreased appetite
The Causes of Stress – Habitual Responses
Many problems in life give rise to stress, such as a bereavement, moving house, health problems, excessive workload or losing a job. There’s also our perception of a potentially stressful situation, which can add to how we feel, both negatively and positively.
Stress triggers a whole range of emotions from anger and rage through to fear, grief, and anxiety. There’s a complex relationship between our physical bodily processes and our emotions and vice versa.
In addition, there are layers of lifetime experiences, which can also affect responses to certain situations. For example, if as a child you had negative experiences with authority figures, where you reacted with fear, those situations in adulthood could be causing a habitual response out of proportion to the event or exchange.
It’s Good to Talk
For most of us, nothing feels better than getting something off your chest. When something is worrying you, you often feel better for sharing your worry with a partner or friend. Things can seem less insurmountable when you’ve vocalized the problem, and you’ve perhaps gained some insight or advice by mulling your issue over.
The old proverb ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ is based on exactly that idea. Talking about your troubles gives you a sense of relief and enables you to put them more into perspective.
The Benefits of Talking
Talking brings relief. It’s cathartic. In fact, feeling listened to is much more important than we give it credit for.
By stuffing feelings down, they won’t just go away. Unexpressed feelings can pile up and explode later on, or they can seep out in a passive-aggressive way.
Whether it’s to a friend, a partner, a work colleague or a professional therapist, talking really can help. Believe it or not, even talking to yourself can change the way you think.
Here are some of the great reasons talking can help you cope with stress.
- Makes you feel better.
- Helps bring awareness to your problem and your habitual responses.
- It brings solutions.
- Seeking support helps you to know you’re not alone.
- Helps put things in perspective.
- Will help you deal with future curveballs.
Talking with a Trained Professional
While talking your problems through with a friend, family member or partner can be extremely helpful, for persistent stress and unresolved problems, talking to a trained professional may prove more fruitful.
Counseling or psychotherapy can provide a longer-term solution to dealing with stress as it will focus on identifying stressors and learning how to manage them better. The process encourages you to be curious about why you respond to numerous situations in particular ways. It’s through awareness that you can slowly begin to make changes to habitual responses.