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Stress – Why It’s Bad for Our Health and How to Neutralise It

In support of Stress Awareness Month this April, I have reflected on my own relationship with stress as well as offering explanations of what it is and ways to manage it.


What is Stress?

Stress is our internal alarm system; our response to any threat, danger or fear. It is subjective and can be caused by a wide range of issues such as: financial insecurity, discrimination, abusive or toxic relationships, bereavement, lack of belonging, work stress, lack of control, overwhelming responsibility or feeling trapped.

Long term stress is known as chronic stress. This could be living day to day with a heavy workload or overbearing responsibilities. When combined with an inability to say no, make changes in a self-assertive way or be unable to recognise it as stress, this leads to chronic stress. The analogy of “spinning too many plates” may resonate with many; we have taken on too many tasks and are struggling to focus effectively on just one. This prolonged experience is often undervalued or normalised in society and we may not accurately label it as stress.

Spot the Symptoms

  • Emotional
    Feeling impatient, wound up, irritable, overwhelmed, nervous, afraid, racing thoughts, depressed, hopeless or lonely.
  • Physical
    Panic attacks, muscle tension, sleep problems, fatigue, aches, headaches, high or low blood pressure, digestive difficulties, weight gain or loss, rashes, sweating, changes to menstrual cycle, dizziness, nausea.
  • Behavioural
    Indecisive, distracted, poor memory, nail biting, skin picking, grinding teeth, clenching jaw, restlessness, tearful, decreased libido, social withdrawal.

Suppression and Connection

Our innate survival need for attachment overrides the need to listen to our own bodily sensations. If we learn that listening to and expressing our internal signals risks the security of our attachment, we will quickly adapt to ignore the signals and suppress our needs.

If we experience our stress response and express this in the presence of someone calm, compassionate and empathic who is able to hear us and offer support, we are able to connect, share their nervous system and co-regulate. One we have experienced this, we may sigh or take a deep breath; our heart rate would go down, we would relax and the stress hormones will abate. Our physiology is interlinked with our environment and social factors. The more positively connected we are, the less stressed we will be.

Stress and Illness

Our nervous systems scan our environment for danger and safety, then send signals to our bodies to let them know the outcome. If there is a threat to our safety, our stress response kicks in sending adrenaline and cortisol into our system to elevate our heart rate and pump blood to our muscles – energising us to escape or fight back, promoting safety and well-being. Our immune system and inflammation are also activated to help combat the threat, protect us from infection and repair any damage. This system evolved to serve as a short-term survival, protection and healing mechanism.

Addiction and trauma expert Dr Gabor Mate emphasises that if we experience ongoing stress and our stress response is regularly activated, we are likely to develop an over-active immune system – this leads to chronic inflammation which impairs it’s functioning, lowers its efficacy and reduces our risk of fighting off illness, leading to cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, bowel disease and cognitive decline.

Here is how I visualise the stress response system and the two potential outcomes or uses of it.

What Stress Means to Me

Stressed was the word I used to describe myself when I went to my doctor around eight years ago. I had developed cystic acne (painful inflammation) and the belief that internally something was malfunctioning, I thought I had a stress disorder or hormonal imbalance. I initially tried to suppress my feelings and ignore the inflammation while rationalising and colluding with the societal normalisation of stress. I covered the acne with make-up and tried to just keep going.  

My hormone test results were within the normal range and I was confused. How could I be feeling so overwhelmed and the cause not be found within me?  After the specialist delivered the results, they asked me about my environment and lifestyle. This helpful enquiry allowed me to look outwardly and pay attention to my symptoms.

The first step I chose to take was to seek therapeutic support. With the help of my counsellor, I began to develop self-awareness and a process for reducing stress. This is what works for me:

Breathing. Bringing myself into the moment.

Boundaries. Considering my needs, limits and expectations.

Authenticity. Expressing myself with integrity.

Self-care. Tuning into my needs, allowing time for care and attention.

Connection. Spending time with loved ones in a fun, relaxed or meaningful way.

Tips for Neutralising Stress

Here are some suggestions to explore individually, with the help of a friend, family member or therapist:

Be compassionately curious. Notice and listen to what you are feeling. When we suppress our emotions, we detach from the feeling but the physiological stress response in our bodies is still taking place.

Develop strategies. Commonly we treat symptoms of stress with pain killers or antidepressants. Try exploring the pain to develop and understanding of it, then consider strategies to cope.

Attachment. Experiencing uncomfortable, negative emotions will not damage us. Expressing our emotions and having them heard and understood will lead to a healthy release, emotional regulation and a sense of safety. You can learn more about attachment styles here.

My personal journey of managing stress continues throughout April and into the future. If you feel it too, remind yourself it is normal to experience low levels of short-term stress – this response can keep us safe and activate change. If you feel you may be suffering with chronic stress, tune into your body, look at your environment and seek support if you feel you need it.

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