And then we’ve got the kind of short-term stress you get at 9:20 this morning, when you’re stuck in the biggest, slowest moving morning traffic jam you’ve ever had the misfortune to be stuck in, ever in your life, and there’s no way you’re going to make it to work in time for that redundancy list announcement.
Of course there can be other causes: for example in the long term, there’s finance and relationship problems (one often leads to the other) and in the short term, any kind of everyday emergency.
But whether the stress has been building up over the long term or it’s due to a sudden crisis that comes out of nowhere, it’s not a lot of fun – in fact, it can be fatal. Think of it this way: stress not only sends your blood pressure skyrocketing, it also makes certain glands work far too hard for their own good (and yours) while they release hormones into your body that really shouldn’t be there in such great quantities.
One of the hormones stress can make your body create is cortisol. That’s produced by the glands which also pump adrenalin into your system. And adrenalin is perfect for dealing with short-term stress situations because we humans have always needed the occasional energy boost. For example, our ancestors would have needed a serious burst of energy, and fast, when suddenly surprised by a saber-tooth tiger.
They’d need to decide on their best option: do they whack it on the snout or hightail it out of there as fast as possible? Or both? Either way, they’d need a huge energy boost to be sure of outrunning that beast, and that’s what adrenalin gave them. This reflex is often referred to as “fight or flight”.
But our ancestors only needed adrenalin for the short term. They didn’t have to worry about mortgages on their caves, missing car payments, upcoming redundancies, or many of the other long-term worries that stress us more modern humans out today.
Nowadays while our adrenal glands are pumping adrenalin into our system as we lie awake at night wondering how to cover next month’s credit card bill, they’re also releasing another hormone into our bloodstream. This one is cortisol, often called the “stress hormone”. Among its functions is the raising of blood sugar levels, and the metabolizing of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
High levels of cortisol, particularly in women, can increase appetite and bring on more fat storage around the waistline.
Here’s something that might be of interest to those of us looking to shed a few surplus pounds: if a dieter suddenly and drastically lowers their intake of calories, their body is quite capable of taking those reduced calories as a signal that all isn’t well.
That in itself can raise stress levels, according to a study published a while back in Psychosomatic Medicine. You could call it the body going through starvation panic.
And just to add to that last bit of good news, the cortisol produced thanks to that kind of ongoing stress often tells the dieter’s body to hold onto the weight they’re desperately trying to lose.
As for how being stressed out can affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally, that’s not a lot of fun either. Physical symptoms you can find yourself very aware of include tension headaches, sleep problems, permanent tiredness, sore and tensed-up muscles, and eating either too much or too little for your needs. As for sex, well, let’s just say it’s not so appealing any more, and leave it at that.
And there are other symptoms which might not make themselves very obvious until far too late. These can include a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, and potentially fatal heart disease.
Mental stress symptoms can include concentration lapses, the inability to hold onto a thought before it gets replaced by another one, difficulty in decision making and a pretty well permanent state of worry about anything and everything. And there’s also forgetfulness and poor judgement.
As for emotions, stress can bring on a sense of overwhelm, sudden mood swings, anxiety and fearfulness, irritability, and lowered levels of self-esteem.
All in all, stress can not only harm those suffering from it in the first place, but also the people close to them, because symptoms like these can seriously damage relationships of all kinds.
But whatever the cause and whatever the symptoms, there are many ways to lower stress levels, so let’s take a quick look at ten of them.
You may have noticed that when you’re stressed out, your breathing can be much faster and shallower than usual. That’s instinctive, and down to the “fight or flight” reflex we talked about earlier. When you’re breathing like that, it feels like you’re not getting enough oxygen, but the truth is you’re actually getting more than enough. But because you’re breathing in and out so fast, your body doesn’t have time to finish converting the oxygen you’re breathing in to the carbon dioxide you should be breathing out.
So to calm yourself back down again when you’re starting to feel like stress is getting the better of you, some experts recommend taking five seconds to breathe in, holding your breath for two seconds and then taking five or six seconds to breathe back out again.
But there’s more to stress-busting than just sitting and breathing. There’s also…
This has been shown to reduce anxiety and help with depression. It’s got a lot to do with faster heartbeat and the resulting increased blood flow around the brain and body while you’re exercising. There’s also the chemical changes exercise causes together with the release of endorphins, those feel-good hormones, after you’ve finished your workout. And that brings us on to…
These don’t have to be physical challenges: you could decide to learn a foreign language, or re-start those piano lessons you gave up on years ago. But whether your challenge is mental or, in this case, physical, just knowing you’ve accepted that challenge brings on greater self-esteem, working on that challenge proves to yourself that you’ve got the self-control you need to work on it, and then once you overcome that challenge you also enjoy a seriously stress-busting sense of accomplishment.
The less you think you can do about the problems causing your stress, the worse that stress is going to become. And it works the other way round, too: the less control you have over your life in the first place, the more likely it is you’ll start suffering from stress.
The good news is that it’s easier to take control of your life again than you might imagine. One of the best ways to start is to decide on some personal goals (they don’t all have to be totally life-changing), list the steps you need to take to accomplish them, and then go ahead and take those steps.
Another way of taking control back over your life is learning how to politely refuse requests. Way too many people find themselves taking on way too much, way too often. The classic example is that one poor person at work who gets all those crappy little jobs dumped on them, simply because everybody else believes the cliché that the best way to get something done is to pass it over to a busy person who’s busy getting everything else done. But so many busy people are busy purely because they can’t smile politely, shake their head, and say “Sorry – I’d love to, but…”. Then again, it might be you making yourself take on more than you can handle because you’re can’t tell the difference between the things you think you must do (those things you can’t avoid) and the things you think you should do (those things you can avoid).
When you feel stressed and out of control you can often develop bad habits without realizing you’re doing so until it’s too late. It’s too easy to light up another cigarette, pour yourself another drink, or indulge in something else that may or may not be legal when you feel stressed out, but that’s not going to make you feel better for very long. Once the effects wear off, your stress is going to come back again, so even though it might be a little more difficult, tackling the original cause of all that stress is going to be much better for you than just reaching for another drink. Or cigarette. Or whatever.
Men seem to find it easier to rely on a crutch like the ones we looked at in “kicking bad habits”, while women are better at getting help from the circle of friends making up their own personal support network.
Humans are social animals, and the better the relationships we enjoy, the more feelings we have of self-worth and belonging. Stress can drastically lower feelings of self-worth, and one of the best ways of building up those feelings back up again once more is to have a network of close friends who can give emotional support when needed. And now thanks to video chat apps, no matter how far away people in your personal support group may be in physical terms, they’ll always be as close as your smartphone.
It’s always tempting to hide away from stress-related domestic problems by staying at work for an extra hour or two, or going back there at weekends. But that’s not time you can call your own. That’s Boss time, and work ethic or no work ethic, that should only be from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday (unless, of course, you work shifts). Then there’s Friends and Family Time, which may well be the reason you’re hiding at work in the first place, to avoid the stress of either trying to say no to whatever they’ve got in mind, or having to go along with it. And that’s why you need a certain amount of Me Time on a regular basis, so you can do exactly what you want to do, and there’s no potential for getting stressed out thanks to everyone else but yourself.
Research suggests that acts of giving have a lot to do with bringing on a positive mental state, as do acts of kindness. Stopping to let another driver cut in ahead of you in that traffic jam you’re stuck in at 9:20 this morning may not seem like that big a deal when you first think about it, but it can help bring on a much-needed warm fuzzy feeling to know you’ve made someone else’s life just that little bit better. As for not-so-random, even deliberate and ongoing acts of kindness, such as volunteering to help out somewhere, they tend to put things into a little more perspective. They can often make you realize that compared to some other people, you really don’t have it as bad as you might think.
You may have come across the Serenity Prayer already. If you haven’t, it first asks for the serenity to accept the things we can’t change, then asks for the courage to change the things we can’t accept. Finally, depending on whose coffee mug it’s printed on, it asks either for the wisdom to know the difference between the two or the wisdom to hide the bodies of those who’ve, er, displeased us one way or the other.
Think of it like this: it’s 9:20 and you can’t do anything about the traffic jam you’re stuck in, and that means you’re going to get to work long after this morning’s redundancy announcement which is due in ten minutes’ time.
So do you really want to stress out about being stuck in the slowest of slow lanes this morning? You’ve got a choice: you could either spend the next hour grinding your teeth in frustration as your heart rate gets faster and faster and your blood pressure gets higher and higher while you shout and shout at the traffic in front of you to get moving…
…or you could spend the next hour enjoying some of your favorite music on the car stereo, doing some deep breathing, and seriously thinking through your options if your name really is on that list of redundancies – while remembering the severance package that’ll keep the bills paid for a few months.
Which would you choose?