Stress - how to deal with it
Stress, and whether it’s healthy or unhealthy, can be imagined in a reversed u-shape. Positive effects of stress (such as increased brainpower, short-term immunity, creativity, motivation) go up until they reach a critical point beyond which they plummet and the opposite results (headaches, digestive issues, insomnia, depression, relationship breakdown, burnout or even cancer).
Many of us are aware of the negative impact of stress, yet all too often we don’t take it seriously enough. We continue to separate mental health from physical health, self-sooth by turning to sugary foods, alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, resort to anger to mask what we really feel (anxiety, guilt, shame, fear), self-sabotage forcing other people to make decisions on our behalf, shut down emotionally by replacing the original stress induced feelings of anxiety with numbness, or detach ourselves from people we like and love physically by spending less time with them.
If we deflect our stress with a short-term solution, we probably won’t acknowledge how stressed we are. Not facing up to how much stress we are under means we aren't likely to do anything about it, leaving us open to chronic (long-term) stress, which can lead to serious health consequences, both physical and mental.
What factors determine how we respond to stress?
There are variety of reasons why some people get more stressed than others, such as
Autonomy and stress
Some people lead lives that create more opportunities for stress than others. How much autonomy a person has in their situation is key to how stressful that situation is. If we have chosen a certain situation for ourselves (like a promotion with more stressful responsibilities or having a family), we are more likely to benefit from it and see any stress that results as either being invigorating, or as something worth putting the effort into.
We learn about our sense of choice and autonomy in childhood. Growing up with neglectful or abusive parents, growing up in poverty, or experiencing a loss early in life may teach a child that they do not have much control over their environment. This is referred to as ‘learned helplessness’. This lack of sense of autonomy can continue into adulthood and make it much more difficult to respond to stress, instead we may become apathic or shut down.
Our childhood experiences have been shown to affect our adult life in various ways. A lot of attention is given to the idea of attachment between the child and primary caregiver. The nature of this attachment in many ways dictates how we form relationships in adulthood, and how we respond to stress.
If we are insecurely attached, we are much more likely respond to stressful situations in destructive ways. How our parents responded to our mistakes or emotional needs as children has a lasting impact on how we view ourselves, and our ability to cope. An insecure attachment in childhood is related to various psychological conditions, such as anxiety and depression, to poor emotional regulation, and also to a sense that we might not be able to lean on others when we need support.
It has also been proven that children who didn’t experience physical proximity and emotional nourishment from their parents from birth due are more likely to have a lower threshold for pain and therefore stress levels.
Our circumstances are not the only factor that determine our resilience levels. Our personality will have a lot to do with it too. If you are high in so called neuroticism, you are likely very sensitive to internal and external stressors. On the other hand, someone who is high in emotional stability will be better able to view their situation with a healthy level of detachment, process what is happening to them, and take constructive action.
Achievements and self-worth
The value we place on reaching our goals is central to our ability to deal with stress. If our self-worth is dependent on reaching every goal we set ourselves, then we will experience high levels of stress when we are challenged, because failure is synonymous with not being good enough.
If you have suffered a major trauma, like bereavement, bullying or violence, it can take a really long time to recover, it can affect your ability to cope with future, possibly much more mundane stressors.
What to do in the face of stress?
How well we cope with life’s pressures largely comes down to how we interpret the situation around us. A person with a solid sense of self-worth who is high in resilience will be confident that they have the resources to cope with what life throws at them. So, how can we give ourselves the best possible chance of having the resources we need to deal with stress?
Cover the basics – exercise, diet & relationships
Exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever. It provides your brain with feel-good endorphins and reduces negative effects of stress while imitating effects of stress, such as the flight or fight response, and helping your body practise working together through those effects.
We all know there are numerous physical benefits of healthy eating, from balancing blood sugar, reversing disease to alleviating chronic inflammation, but research shows that a higher intake of green leafy vegetables can also promote optimism, self-efficacy, and reduce psychological distress and depressive symptoms.
Being socially engaged and participating in social activities give rise to feelings of acceptance, connection, support and sense of belonging that are crucial to our overall wellbeing. Having healthy, fulfilling friendships is good for our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Knowing that we have people who care about us and support us makes taking risks, failing, and facing challenges much more doable.
Adjust your expectations
It may sound obvious, but accepting that problems, and therefore stress, is a part of life, can help hugely. So much energy can be wasted fighting with thoughts of “I shouldn't have to deal with this” or “why me?”. Dealing with stressful situations can be demanding, but it's unhelpful to think that you shouldn't “have to” be dealing with stress in the first place. Things always come up, and stressful situations will always manifest, for all of us. Truly accepting stress as a normal part of life frees you to dedicate your energies towards moving yourself forward and beyond the stressful situation.
Take up spiritual practices or mindfulness
Spirituality can affect our stress levels, and more broadly our mental health, in a variety of ways. It encourages us to have better relationships with ourselves, others, and the unknown. Spirituality can give us a sense of peace, purpose, and forgiveness, which can heal our relationships and promote more resilience. It often increases our confidence, self-esteem and can help make sense of our experiences in life. Many people get a sense of hope and hope gives people the will, determination, and sense of empowerment that allows them to reach their goals. As hope reduces our tendency to catastrophise scenarios, those exhibiting higher hopefulness display higher resilience to both physically and psychologically painful experiences.
If you don’t consider yourself a spiritual person, try mindfulness meditation. There are multiple benefits of mindfulness like increasing neuroplasticity in the prefrontal cortex responsible for decision-making, emotion regulation and stress management. Mindfulness meditation also reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes your body after periods of stress.
Practicing mindfulness can also help us cultivate more gratitude for the things that we have in our lives. This stops us from thinking back regretfully for the things we perceive we have lost and makes us think twice when we are consumed by what we think we need to get, achieve or do in order to be happy.
Talk to someone
Frequently the stress we are experiencing involves those closest to us and therefore it can be difficult to express yourself openly. It may also be hard for friends and family to understand what we are going through, so talking to a therapist can be immensely valuable. They can help you unpack why you respond to stress the way you do, and help you choose healthier ways of dealing with whatever it is that is causing you stress.