What’s our culture teaching us about stress?
April is Stress Awareness and what better way to raise awareness than to tackle the way we view stress in our culture. There’s been a lot of stress in and around our lives over the past few years - and some days it doesn't feel like it’s remotely letting up or like we’ll get relief anytime soon. The impact of long-term or chronic stress can be harmful to our wellbeing, but much of the stress we face (I’m not talking pandemic or current ongoing war here) is quite normal. But we’ve been taught to fear all stress, which makes us feel more stressed at the prospect of facing stress, never mind when we are stressed.
Had enough of the word ‘stress’? Buckle up, it’s going to be mentioned only a few more times.
One of the biggest challenges we face with stress is actually how we’ve been conditioned to see it. The way stress is talked about, in wellbeing, day to day life, with health professionals, in the media, isn’t helping us deal with stress. We’ve come to fear stress and feel like we need to get rid of it or shouldn’t have it.
Stress is actually just a response
You might be familiar with feeling stressed, but did you know that stress is actually just a response? Our response to a perceived threat to our safety that signals our fight, flight or freeze mode to kick in, which allows us to respond to said threat accordingly. We call this threat a stressor; something that causes stress. But we aren’t typically huge fans of it, because the feelings it can spark can be quite uncomfortable.
But those feelings and sensations we get when we say we feel stressed - that slightly queasy, palm-sweating, heart-racing kind of feeling, that makes concentrating, sleeping and managing the day just that bit harder - although uncomfortable, is the feeling of our brains and bodies working to protect us.
Now, this response kept us alive back in the day of sabre tooth tigers, when we needed to fight or flee life threatening danger. These days, the dangers we face are less hungry cats, and more overflowing email inboxes, life changing events, managing workloads and responsibilities, public speaking - threats to our wellbeing.
These low-key kinds of threats, the daily stressors we tackle, are normal. So we don’t need to fear this kind of stress. We’re not saying that stress isn’t unpleasant, nor should we strive for it, but when we fear it or the prospect of facing stress, it can heighten our stress response and cause us to feel worse mentally and emotionally.
Regulating our stress response
Our stress response is regulated by the level of threat we perceive there to be. Which in simpler terms means, the more threatening we believe the stressor to be, the stronger our stress response, and the longer it stays active. Typically, once the brain notices that a threat has passed, it deactivates the stress response and restores calmness for us. It’s clever right?
In real terms, this means we have more control over our stress than we might have realised.
If you log on to start work on a Monday and find an overflowing inbox awaiting you and a deadline to meet in the afternoon, we might feel a little overwhelmed. If we start to worry that we won’t get done in time, our stress response will kick in to help us. Now, we probably don’t need it to fight or flee the situation (as much as we might want to), but we might need a boost of energy to help us focus and crack on.
But if we believe the many emails and lack of time to meet the deadline will cause our boss to get mad at us, or even lose our job, our stress response will be stronger and the helping hand it could give us might cause us to feel frantic and have difficulty concentrating. This is because the worse we believe the outcome, the stronger the stress response will be.
So, when it comes to our daily stress, the things that can be challenging or require extra effort, but are by no means substantial threats to our safety, if we can regulate this response we will find it much easier to manage the stress levels we feel. And when our daily stressors feel more manageable, combating the bigger stressors or anxieties won’t feel as insurmountable. Instead of being taught to fear stress and its impact, we need to learn to manage our stressors and response to better cope with our daily stress, and in turn prevent the bigger stressors impacting our health and wellbeing.
How to regulate your response
It ain’t going to happen overnight. This takes a little practice because we have so much going on, so much to do, responsibilities to meet, and these days we tend to rush through life or the day to make sure we have time for everything. But here’s the catch, we need to slow down a little, just enough to be able to notice when that stress response is kicking in. When we do notice it, we can pause and ask ourselves:
Is this detrimental to my wellbeing or safety? Really?
Can I control the outcome? Really?
Do I need the extra energy to get through this?
You have to answer these questions honestly, and you may need to keep reminding yourself of the answers, especially if this is a new practice for you. It won’t work for every scenario, even if we don’t really need our stress response to get us through, but it’s about recognising whether the stress is helping or hindering us. We need to stop stressing about stress because it makes us feel more stressed.
Stress buster muster: Coming to terms with not being able to control an outcome can also be challenging to wrap your head around, or at least allowing yourself to trust the process can be. Sometimes, just acknowledging it’s beyond our control can help us manage the stress it can cause - like praying for nice weather for that picnic, we can’t control the weather but stressing about isn’t going to be much help either. Go easy on yourself, slow down a little, and let some of that unnecessary additional pressure melt away.