We all experience stress sometimes – it is part of life. Stress is how our brain and body respond to any challenge. McGonigal (2015) referred to stress as what arises when something we care about is at stake.
We all use the word stress to refer to how we feel when things feel too much. However, this word is too broad and covers a multitude of situations. So, when we say we are stressed, we are likely to be referring to different things.
When facing a dangerous situation our body prepares us so that we can manage it. It is normal for our muscles to tense up, our pulse increases, and our breathing gets faster so that our brain can receive more oxygen to function effectively.
Our brain triggers the stress response when our demands exceed our available resources, disrupting our internal balance or homeostasis. Our body requires to be in the state of homeostasis to function optimally. Stress is a physiological response when this imbalance occurs.
It is our body’s normal reaction to protect us from danger so that we can fight or run to survive.
The amygdala (part of the limbic system) sends signals to the brain to release stress hormones so that our body can access essential resources to deal with a challenging situation. So, stress is not a mental health problem. However, ongoing chronic stress suppresses our immune system making us more vulnerable to illnesses (Macciochi, 2020).
Sapolsky (2004) describes a stressor as anything that can knock us out of balance. From an evolution perspective, our ancestors needed to have extra energy to fight or to run predators to save their lives.
A stressor may be something that happens for a short time, or it can happen repeatedly over a prolonged time. For example, when we must deal with difficult work or a challenging life situation.
Our body releases cortisol and adrenaline, among other hormones, to mobilise energy to our muscles and brain. Other physiological functions, such as appetite and digestion, are suppressed so that the energy can be diverted to key areas of our body to manage the immediate danger.
We are living in the 21st Century, and our body is still reacting in the same way as our ancestors did to deal with dangerous situations. Our body will react to different triggers that may cause us to feel threatened, even though it may not be critical for survival in the physical sense.
In non-dangerous situations, when we face challenges, the stress response provides us with more energy so that we can focus better to deal with these important tasks. For example, performing at an interview or in exams.
We are likely to feel on edge and tense when we are in this state of hyperalert. Our muscles may ache as a result of the tension, and we may experience a sense of apprehension as our body prepares us to deal with a perceived danger. Now, our brain will not make a difference between a life-threatening situation and a perceived danger.
When we feel we do not have control, or we feel as if we lack the capacity to overcome the problem, our brain reacts as if we were in physical danger. Perhaps, having thoughts of not doing well academically, having financial worries or the thought of not getting a job. These are significant concerns, and when the body triggers the stress response, we can interpret it as a signal to do something about it.
At this time of significant change to our normal life-style due to coronavirus, many may be experiencing a heightened state of alert and tension as we deal with the uncertainty of how things will unfold.
We are social beings, so having to stay at home/Halls to maintain physical distance for an undetermined period can be very challenging.
Many people experience a disruption in their routines and feel a bit at a loss as to regain some sense of order and control. It is more difficult to focus on work as the normal cues we have that help us to focus are not around. For example, getting ready in the morning to go out to go to class or go to work.
We are used to having dedicated spaces for work or study (office, library, lecture hall). Not being able to work effectively can be frustrating and worrying, as we see time slipping away and deadlines approaching fast. The lack of progress can be experienced as a sense of loss of control, which can trigger symptoms of stress.
How can we restore balance?
Change how you view stress: New research indicates that if we change our mindset, that is, if we view stress as something we can manage, we can change the way our mind and our body react.
McGonigal (2015) says that the best way to manage stress is not to reduce it or to avoid it. Instead, to view it as a challenge and use the energy released to manage the situation.
How we view things can transform the effect events have on us. By looking for alternative ways of interpreting situations, and our own internal world, we can identify ways of dealing with the situation and use the energy available to act.
Focus on what you can do: We can experience stress when we feel we do not have control, when we are uncertain of what will happen, or when we have high expectations that are unrealistic. Identify what things or situations that trigger tension and concern, and then turn your attention to those things that you can do something about. Let go of what you cannot control.
Develop self-compassion: This refers to having an understanding view of ourselves and others. Acknowledging our humanity and realising that as humans we are vulnerable and can make mistakes.
Having the ability to empathise with others, as we do with our best friends is our strength. Become your best friend, someone who understands and is not critical.
Take a moment to pause and reflect. Give yourself time to breathe, to take a step back and observe what is happening. Acknowledge your feelings and let go of worry thoughts (Gilbert, 2010).
Practise mindfulness: this refers to a technique where we pause and focus on our breath, to regulate our breathing and stay present. It is about paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment. Noticing thoughts and letting them go by, without attaching meaning to them (Williams & Penman, 2011).
Take a few minutes to pay attention to what you are doing. Notice where you are right now – if you are sitting down, notice the chair and your body; or if you are walking, notice how your body feels as you move.
When you notice that you are getting distracted, bring your attention back to the activity you are doing now, and start to pay attention again. You can also do a 5-minute mindful breathing exercise (check resources in the Life Tools Blackboard course).
Start journaling: Take a few minutes to write down your thoughts freely, letting the words go onto the page. Research shows that writing what we are thinking helps us to process our thoughts and feelings and make sense of our experiences. As we write, we construct a narrative that helps us to organise our thoughts and to manage our emotions.
This type of writing can benefit our health by improving our sleep and strengthening our immune system. “Expressive writing gives us the opportunity to stand back and re-evaluate issues in our lives.” (Pennebaker,2014).
When things are difficult, writing enables us to identify what is important, and we can focus on what has meaning and gives us a sense of purpose.
Exercise: movement is the most effective antidote to managing and preventing the negative effects of stress. Go outdoors for a walk so that you can take in the fresh air, and if possible, spend some time in nature. The natural world can have immediate benefits, as the green and open spaces nurture the body and relax the mind.
Play: when stressed we become too serious and focused on negative thoughts preventing us from being able to relax our muscles. Play stimulates our curiosity, and it enables us to free our minds to explore ideas.
It brings us back to the present moment. It stimulates our creativity as we discover new perspectives and possibilities. It can help us to find solutions to those problems that have been causing us stress.
Protect sleep: create a bed-time routine so that your body can pick up the signals that it is bedtime. Dim the lights and turn off digital devices about an hour before going to bed. Nowadays, many are used to checking their phones all the time, and often they do so last thing at night. Doing so will active the mind, and it will prevent sleep. If this is the case for you, put your phone on silent and leave it in another room so that it will not disturb your sleep.
If you find it difficult to get to sleep, do a mindful breathing exercise or a body scan, to relax your body and mind.
Develop healthy habits: eating well, and creating daily routines, protect your health and build your resilience. This is your body’s capacity to deal with challenges more effectively, making you stronger.
“Resiliency is something you do, more than something you have. . . You become highly resilient by continuously learning your best way of being yourself in your circumstance.” (Al Siebert)
“With the new day come new strength and new thoughts.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
Enrol in the Life Tools Blackboard course to access screencasts and podcasts, and to receive a weekly email with details of the upcoming talks and webinars.
Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.
Macciochi, J. (2020) Immunity. The science of staying well. London: Thorsons.
McGonigal, K. (2015) The upside of stress. Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London: Vermilion.
Pennebaker, J. (2014) Expressive writing: words that heal. Washington: Idyll Arbor, Inc.
Sapolsky, R. (2004) Why zebras don’t get ulcers. The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. Revised and updated. New York: Hold Paperbacks.
Walker, M. (2014) Why we sleep. London: Penguin, Random House.
Williams, M. & Penman, D. (2011) Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Piatkus.