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Stress Awareness Month – What Is Stress?

Stress Awareness Month – What is stress?

Stress is a normal part of life

This may be from the world around us, from our own bodies or from our thoughts.

The human body has developed an intelligent and efficient stress response to help us handle and grow from whatever life throws at us. This allows our body to divert vital energy to the systems that need it, keeping us alert, motivated and ready to avoid danger. This is sometimes called fight or flight.

As well as fight or flight, we can also experience ‘freeze’ or ‘fold’, where our body tightens its muscles or when our body collapses in on itself such as when we might curl up in a ball. These are all normal and we may experience different reactions in different situations.

Stress can be good

If we didn’t have some stress in our lives, we would never grow, develop resilience, and push ourselves. This is good stress and is like the feelings we get when we are excited – heart pumping and butterflies in your stomach. Equally, the body responds in a similar way to danger, where the release of hormones also obstructs rational thought processes and allow us to fixate on the danger at hand. In essence, our mind recognises the stress, and our body responds accordingly – regardless of whether the stress is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Once the problem is dealt with, the body automatically guides the person back to a calm, pre-stress state where their heart rate returns to normal and everything is relaxed.

But long-term stress can be bad

However, when stress becomes constant – whether this is from our environment (such as exposure to poverty or abuse or a stressful work environment), from within your body (such as in chronic illnesses) or thoughts (such as anxiety or depression), the response of the body becomes altered and is less able to return quickly to the relaxed, pre-stress state. The body then becomes hypersensitive to switching the stress response on but is slow to turn it off.

As such, some of the responses that are important for keeping us safe in a dangerous situation can work against us. The stress response system is designed to divert energy where it is needed to cope with a dangerous situation. So, blood flow is diverted away from digestion, growth, repair and logical thinking. Our immune system can also be affected. Equally, certain aspects of memory improve, and senses are sharper – we become alert for signs of ways to deal with the danger at hand (as we need to remember if we have encountered the danger before and how to get away from it).

So short-term stress may increase your ability to do well in that exam, or perform well on stage, but too much stress will stop you thinking properly in your exams and will make you forget your lines in your play.  You may become hyper-alert, struggle to sleep well and feel sick. Your heart may race, and you may lose interest in things or be less motivated to make healthy choices. You may get sick or be more prone to allergies as your immune system struggles to handle a situation.

Your response is normal

Your body’s response to stress is normal and necessary to keep you safe. Coping and defensive systems form because of things that you may have experienced. They can be normal reactions to things that were scary in the past.

However, stress and stress responses can overtake your life and stop you from being relaxed and happy and making good choices. There are things you can do to help if stress is overtaking your life.

Build your stress-busting toolbox

Just as stress can be individual, so are the ways of coping with it. Notice what triggers your stress response, notice how your body responds, notice what helps you calm down and build up your own individual toolbox of strategies that can work to give you back a state of calm and control.

Be prepared that you will encounter situations in the future that will cause you to feel in danger or stressed and that you may not be able to predict what or when these things might be. Know that you can have all you need to deal with whatever you must face, that you can cope and that you will be ok.

Some useful techniques

Planning and thinking ahead for things that might help when you are feeling stressful can be useful. Here are a few evidence-based ideas that you can use to take back control of your body’s responses.

  • Activate the chill-out system of your body by deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or prayer.
  • Use grounding techniques that focus on your senses and train your brain back to rational thinking. The 5,4,3,2,1 technique can be particularly good. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
  • Reach out for support. Making yourself vulnerable can be hard but when you reach out to the right person, the results can be amazing. You don’t have to do anything completely on your own.
  • Get outside. Even if it for just a short time, try to get out and notice nature. It doesn’t matter where you live – even in the middle of the city, there can be small bursts of nature to be found – look up at the sky or notice the small flower growing through the paving slabs.
  • Exercise – again, for stress release, it doesn’t take much. A short walk is sometimes all it takes to reset your mind again.
  • Remember when you felt stressed in the past and got through it, you can again.

Thank you to our Dorset Mind Your Head volunteer Chrissy for this informative blog.

Need more help?

DMYH offers a range of services and support when you need it. If you feel it would be helpful to talk to someone about your stresses you can start a referral to our wellbeing check- in service.

Wellbeing Check-in service

The service is designed for young people aged 11-25 who would like neutral and confidential support for mild to moderate mental health needs.  Through this service we provide weekly ‘check-ins’ over zoom or over the phone with a trained volunteer.

Be Mindful

Be Mindful provides information on mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). It also provides guidance on how to learn and embrace mindfulness as well as course listings.

Mind Tools

Is a website with lots of information on topics including stress management and assertiveness.

NHS Choices

This website provides information about stress and tips to manage and tackle your stress.

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