Stress: what is it?

Our bodies have evolved to react when in danger, whether that is physical danger (e.g. the threat of being eaten or attacked) or social (losing social status, uncertain situations, lack of control, meeting strangers or unfairness).

Of course these days things tend to be a little more complicated than being chased by a wild animal or trying to fight off a new dominant male in the pack, but sure enough the stress mechanism still comes in to play. It is entirely possible to get some control over these processes, but the first stage is to recognise and understand what is happening.

The body’s response to stress

The initial reaction to stress (‘Alarm’) is all about preparing the body to start running or fighting, and is triggered by the release of hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol as directed by the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that links the nervous systems and endocrine/hormone systems. The effects you notice are:

  • Acceleration of the heartbeat and breathing faster, to get more oxygen to the muscles,
  • Liberation of fat and glucose to provide energy for the muscles,
  • Pupil dilation and inhibition of peripheral vision so you concentrate on moving in one direction only,
  • Relaxation of bladder and various sphincters, to prevent the effort of holding in body waste and possibly to ‘offload’ weight,
  • Dilation of blood vessels in muscles, constriction of blood vessels everywhere else,
  • Magnification of spinal reflexes, ability to focus and immune system, and inhibition of various other energy-consuming processes and responses such as sexual arousal, digestion, attention to pain and higher-order thinking (e.g. creativity and metacognition).

If the cause of stress remains for some time then the body moves in to the ‘resistance’ phase where it attempts to adapt the response to suit the situation. However, if this goes on too long then the body moves in to the final ‘exhaustion’ phase where the imbalance of normal blood flow and excess production of certain hormones can exhaust the body’s resources, leading to long-term damage. This could manifest as ulcers, diabetes, digestive disorders, cardiovascular problems, depression, or other mental disorders.

So what’s the problem?

Stress is a fairly primitive response to problems, and in most situations that we encounter in life we would do better to regain control of ourselves. When we’re in the full grip of ‘fight-or-flight’ we aren’t using our full mental faculties, and can appear irritable, overly emotional, agitated and unhappy. We’re poor at remembering, poor at concentrating and we tend toward pessimism. The trouble is that, for many people, stress becomes a way of life. People become isolated socially, pick up bad-habits and addictions, become more prone to illness, lose sex-drive and develop poor sleeping habits.

This is all rather rather sad and ironic as our most effective routes out of stress are often other people’s empathy and listening, sleep, and our own high-order thinking skills such as metacognition. However in the absence of a decent understanding of stress we often smoke, drink, take drugs and develop emotional problems and thinking disorders.

So what’s the solution?

Fortunately we can learn and develop the skills that help overcome the majority of stressful situations.

  1. Name the emotion in order to tame it.
    Practise becoming aware of your different emotional states. Notice your physical stress responses and make a mental note that you are feeling stressed and anxious. Separate the feeling from yourself, e.g. “I feel sad right now” and not “I am sad”. This engages your left-brain to bring a bit of order and logic to the rather more right-brain oriented emotional responses, and activates the metacognitive powers of your higher-order brain areas to bring understanding instead of fear.
  2. Put it in to perspective.
    Remember all emotions are temporary and will pass. Spot what just caused the emotion and notice that your brain went into autopilot as a result. Pause whatever you are doing. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly and consciously relax your muscles. If you are able, move away from the situation and do something physical (brisk walking, jumping, stretches). Take a moment to notice as the physical symptoms gradually diminish: muscles relax, breathing and heart-rate slows, your thinking becomes calmer. By doing this your brain starts releasing chemicals that moderate the hormonal action of the stress response.
  3. Acknowledge and accept it.
    Don’t give yourself a hard time, your instincts just kicked in as a result of the combination of what just happened with your memories of previous events. Don’t worry that you’ve just been in conflict or an anxious-making situation. Both are very useful, and can be triggers for personal growth. You’ve just been in a situation where you can learn something useful about yourself, the world, and other people. Take a moment (you can do this a little later) to think through the clear logic of what happened, how you felt and why you felt it. If it was someone else who caused the stress, imagine what combination of their personal perception and memories triggered their action. All of these actions help you move the event from unconscious low-level memory to explicit higher-level memory, and fully integrate the event through all parts of the brain, emotional and logical. Failure to do this can lead to anxious memories and future stress.

When should you do this?

Use this all the time. Practise noticing your emotional and mental state, whether happy, sad, alert, tired, loving, angry or anxious. You can even practise this in retrospect by simply imagining a recent stressful situation and remembering your physical state. You’ll probably find that in doing so you re-live some of the stress and can practise taming it.

How can you help someone else?

This is easier with children, but can also work with adults. Be explicit in naming what they are feeling, e.g.”Oh dear, poor you, I can see you’re feeling really angry at the moment, your brain must be in full stress mode which can’t be very nice”. Use your whole body to show empathy and sympathy for their situation. Speak more slowly, take a breath and exhale noticeably. Encourage them to pause and take a breath. If you can do, take them away from the stress situation and encourage them to walk around. You could sit down and throw a ball backward and forward as you start to discuss the situation, give them a stress toy or a cushion to squeeze. Remind them gently (if appropriate) that it was just an emotion when their brain went into autopilot.

As you see them start to relax, say it out loud – reassure them that they are relaxing and that the situation is over. Now you can start  asking questions and listen openly to responses. You might start with “How are you feeling now?” to ground them back in their more relaxed state.

Summary

  1. Stress is activated in physically and socially threatening situations
  2. Your muscles tense, your breathing quickens and your logical ability and emotional control diminish.
  3. Begin to conquer stress by noticing the stress response in your brain, and mentally name it: “I am feeling stressed/anxious at this moment”
  4. Put it in perspective by remembering that it is just a temporary emotion. “I can relax myself and this emotion will pass soon”. Pause, take a slow breath, relax your muscles,
  5. Acknowledge the stressful situation. Don’t give yourself a hard time, take a moment to think through the situation from all angles and perspectives.
  6. Practise noticing emotions in all parts of your life. Help other people through stress by verbalising what they are thinking, mirroring their emotions and guiding them to relax.

I will be writing some more blogs about how school leaders, teachers, students and parents can apply these principles, and about how some simple habits can increase your general positivity and reduce overall stress.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this blog, as always!

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