Is my stress level too high? A quick scan of body and mind
“Stress” is a widely used term in today’s world. It is a universal and omnipresent experience, affecting people at every stage of life, regardless of education level or socioeconomic situation. From a scientific perspective, we already know a lot about stress and how our bodies respond to it. However, in everyday life, many people still struggle to recognize it and find it even more challenging to cope with its excess adequately. Among our clients, stress remains one of the most frequently reported issues in the first session.
Is it bad to be stressed?
Stress is a complex phenomenon. It is a natural response of our body to the demands that arise in the environment. In this sense, stress acts as a stimulant and motivator, helping us achieve goals and, in some situations, survive threatening situations. On the other hand, it can cause difficulties in emotional functioning, thinking, and overall health. So, what determines whether stress has a positive or negative impact on us? To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at what happens to us under its influence.
How do we react to stress?
The nervous and hormonal systems play a crucial role in the stress response. Specifically, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. The response to stress begins with the “perception” of danger in our environment. Whether the threat is real and perceived through sensory receptors (such as sight or hearing), or an imagined or remembered threat that somehow poses a danger to us, does not matter to humans (unfortunately!) When the situation is interpreted as a threat, the nervous system reacts. It initiates the processing of those signals into emotions, which, in turn, lead to the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones. These substances cause a response at the level of organs, tissues, and cells, preparing the body for action – typically taking the form of fight or flight.
If we remain attentive enough, we will be able to notice this response in our body, behavior, thoughts, and emotions. It occurs to enable us to respond effectively to a threatening situation. If we perceive the obstacle as worth facing, our bodies will mobilize us to fight, and if it seems too overwhelming, the desire to escape will arise.
To continue reading the rest of the article, it may be helpful to take a moment to think back to the last time something caused you a high level of stress (such as a public speaking engagement, an exam, or even a plane journey). See if you can remember how you felt back then and if you can, make a few notes.
Body – Behavior – Emotions – Thinking
So, what happens in our bodies? First, we usually notice an increased heart rate – blood flows faster to accelerate the distribution of oxygen. Oxygen is the carrier of energy that enables more efficient fighting or escaping from the opponent. An unpleasant sensation that may accompany this is, for example, heart palpitations or the feeling that the heart is about to jump out of the chest. Our breathing also speeds up too, which can result in a feeling of breathlessness, suffocation, choking, or even yawning (yes, you can yawn when you’re stressed!) We experience increased tension in skeletal muscles, often accompanied by a feeling of tightness, sometimes pain, trembling, or muscle shaking (often noticed in the neck, shoulders, legs). The activity of the digestive system decreases, allowing more energy to be sent to systems directly useful in fighting or fleeing, which (unfortunately again!) does not include digestion. Consequently, we may experience a feeling of dry mouth, nausea, constipation, or diarrhoea. The same fate befalls the viscera and skin, which can result in a feeling of coldness, numbness, tingling in the fingers, hands, and feet, and pale skin. It’s helpful to be aware of which of those sensations are typical for you when you experience stress as it may vary and show up differently for different people.
When it comes to behaviour in the face of stress, it can be described on a continuum where one end would be activity and the other passivity. If we “fight” the stressor, we can exhibit aggressive behaviours or irritability (snappiness, nervous reactions even in minor matters) whereas the result of the flight response can be withdrawal, avoidance or giving up.
The fight-or-flight response can also be observed in our emotions and thinking. We usually experience strong and negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, irritability, or anger, excessive arousal, impulsiveness. We may struggle with racing thoughts, have difficulty remembering things, and experience a decrease in concentration and attention. As our ability to think critically and creatively is reduced, we may struggle to make rational (or any!) decisions.
Now, for a moment think of a character from a thriller or a horror movie. The protagonists always hide in “wrong” places or run “in the wrong” direction, straight into the arms of the attacker while fleeing danger. Perhaps knowing exactly how stress affects our thinking, we can be a bit more understanding of them.
The effects of chronic stress
Most stressors in our daily lives do not pose a physical threat to our health and we usually can’t resolve them by fighting or fleeing from them. What we mostly find stressful are social situations, work problems or family issues. Therefore, some of the changes that our body undergoes may be experienced as hindering our functioning or unpleasant side effects rather than helpful reactions enabling reduction of stress. Fortunately, many of the changes that occur as a result of the “fight or flight” response are short-term and reversible. When the stressor disappears, the body calms down and eventually returns to equilibrium.
The problem arises when the stressor or stressful situation persists for a longer period of time, such as a constant high pressure at work or chronic illness of a loved one. In such conditions, our body does not naturally return to balance, which can affect our functioning and at times lead to the development of a medical condition. Among stress-related complications, we can mention those related to mental health (such as depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease) as well as those related to physical health (such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, infertility, menstrual disorders, impotence, or dermatological problems).
Assess your stress level
Considering the described processes and long-term consequences, it becomes obvious that it is important to manage stress presence in our lives. One of the first steps to take in this regard is to pay attention to the current state of stress in our lives through taking the time to examine our thought processes but also how we feel in our bodies on a daily basis.
The following scale by M. Staniek can be useful. Take a look at the following questions and answer them with yes or no.
- Do you have a constant sense of lack of time and feel overwhelmed by the amount of things to do?
- Do you constantly feel tired and think about finding time to rest all the time?
- Do you often find yourself thinking about things you feel obligated to do even when you have free time, such as watching a movie or having a meal?
- Do you notice a greater reluctance to spend time leisurely compared to before? And if you do, do you feel like you should use that time more productively?
- Do you have difficulty falling asleep, relaxing, or letting go of certain things?
- Do you have a tendency to get angry without a clear reason more often than before?
- Have you recently found yourself giving up on rest and relaxation multiple times?
- Do you often feel that your coping abilities with problems are significantly lower than what you need, and the tasks and issues you should handle overwhelm and frighten you?
- Are there any tasks and responsibilities that used to be easy for you but now seem beyond your capabilities?
- Do you often feel helpless, sad, and unmotivated to face life’s challenges?
If the majority of your answers (8 or more) are ‘’yes’’, it is likely that your stress has exceeded the acceptable and safe level. In that case, it’s important to make changes to prevent your mental and physical state from deteriorating. If you answered “yes” between 4 and 7 times, you experience stress quite often but feel that you can still cope with it. In this case, it is also worthwhile to explore methods that you could use to reduce your everyday stress level. However, if you answered “yes” 4 times or less, you are likely handling everyday tensions well or experiencing a low level of stress, which is wonderful news!
If you want to learn more about how you can effectively manage stress in your life, have a look at other articles on our blog. If you’d like to speak about the stress in your life with one of our therapists, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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