To misquote TS Elliot ‘November is the cruellest month.’ We are in the midst of winter and still reeling from the shock that it seemed like only yesterday that we were sat in the garden in 25 degree heat, it’s cold and dark when we get up and get home and that Christmas shopping hasn’t even been started yet. Coupled with that is that Christmas itself is still a good few weeks away so respite is a while in the waiting yet.
So November seems the perfect time to write a blog about stress. Working with people on a daily basis over the last decade, I nearly always see stress levels creeping up at this time of the year as the benefits of any summer breaks are in the dim and distant past, workloads pile up and the nights draw in. In seems no coincidence to me that I see the highest levels of stress – related illnesses in November.
We all get stressed, most of us to some degree or another on a daily basis. Stress, in itself, is not a problem. Exercise is stress, work is stress, other people are stress. That doesn’t mean we should avoid exercise, sit on the dole and live in a bubble. Stress is unavoidable, and trying to avoid it would be very stressful indeed! With that in mind, managing stress comes down to an individual response. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that more and more people are taking either time off work or time out of the country in November. Again, I don’t think this is coincidence that those with the option to take the ultimate stress relief do so in November.
The first thing to understand is that, although most stressors are psychological (worry, work, emotional upset), the effect that they have is very real and very physical. Every time you worry about a bill, get annoyed at somebody at work, run late due to traffic or feel guilty over that extra slice of cake you had, even though you might feel no physical change in your body, there are myriad things going on. Stress is a defence mechanism – most of us recognise it as the ‘flight or fight’ mode. In fact there is a third option here – freeze. I’ll give you examples of how all of these work:
Flight: Obvious really – this is the body’s signal to remove itself from the stress. A good example might well be a recovering alcoholic at a party where there’s alcohol needing to go outside and take some time to themselves. Also, listening to soothing music, yoga etc are good examples of this flight mode where we just remove ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally from stress.
Fight: A more aggressive stress response. Confronting a colleague or partner over something they’ve done, working out, shouting – all examples of fight response. More direct, and for some, more effective than flight. Often though, we get stuck in wanting a fight response yet cannot resolve the issue. Road rage is a classic example of this. People that often find themselves trapped in fight responses would do well to look at ways they can manage this as it’s often the most stressful and least useful of the responses. It’s also socially unacceptable in most instances to either lash out verbally or physically.
Freeze: This is actually what most of us do most of the time to low level stressors. For example, have you ever been on a First Aid course and entered a roomful of strangers who are also strangers to each other? There’s often very little conversation. I choose First Aid because those courses bring together total strangers, often with very little in common. In a roomful of doctors or teachers for example, we mightn’t see the same reaction as there would be a known context and common ground to help break the ice. Another example would be the lack of conversation on public transport. We are outside our potential comfort zone, not knowing if the person sat opposite us is a genius, psychopath, friend or foe. So we freeze. We do exactly what everybody else in the room is doing which is remain silent. It’s the body’s first port of call in stress management. It’s why you often read of brutal assaults taking place in front of several witnesses with nobody doing anything – and on the flip side, if one person does step in, others then feel empowered to help. Freeze could also be called ‘mimic’.
Regardless of which path your body takes, the initial physiological response is the same. A flood of hormones, released by the body’s nervous system including cortisol and adrenalin, start to flood your body. These cause rises in blood pressure, tightening muscles and increase in breathing and heart rate. All of which help to temporarily increase strength, speed and stamina in preparation for the perceived stress. It’s why exercise is such an effective stress reliever for most people – the physical stress response is perfect for priming the body for physical effort. This is an evolutionary defence mechanism; unfortunately though, it’s hugely misfiring. In life or death situations – ie the greatest amount of stress you’re ever liable to face – these physical changes in the body give us that extra 5% or so that could be the difference between death and survival: a quicker response time, greater speed, more strength – all of these could make the difference in potentially life-threatening scenarios.
However, most of us do not live quite so close to this edge (staying up past 10:30 counts as ‘living dangerously’ for me these days) so this hormonal surge is completely inappropriate. From a physiological point of view we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go. So you have the same hormonal rush from being cut up in traffic as you would from being physically attacked, but unlike a physical attack your stressor has disappeared and you are unable to use this hormonal priming for its purpose.
So what happens then? Not a lot in isolation really, and if you’re handling your stress well and appropriately, stressful incidents won’t really have too much of an impact on your health. However, chronic, unchecked stress leads to repeated exposure to these changes which can have a hugely detrimental effect that can manifest itself in any number of ways:
Inability to concentrate
Seeing only the negative
Anxious or racing thoughts
Irritability or short temper
Agitation, inability to relax
Sense of loneliness and isolation
Depression or general unhappiness
Aches and pains
Diarrhea or constipation
Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
Loss of sex drive
Eating more or less
Sleeping too much or too little
Isolating yourself from others
Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
It goes without saying, therefore, that unchecked stress is hugely damaging to health. It’s also fair to say that I don’t think I’ve yet worked with a client that hasn’t exhibited at least two of the above symptoms. Stress is ubiquitous, but it’s not a problem for everyone.
One of the most interesting finds on researching this article might go some way to explaining that last sentence. Stress is unavoidable – we will all face external stressors. External stressors happen often outside of your control – such as being late for work due to traffic or having more work plonked on your desk by a demanding boss. Others might be more serious like a death in the family or the break up of a relationship. Some external stressors we can affect – such as moving house or hosting a party, but both of these often rely on the co – operation of others which in itself can be stressful. The most common external stressor I encounter is people; with grumpy teenagers, demanding bosses, stroppy children and difficult or useless co-workers topping the list of ‘people stressors’. These are the hardest stressors to deal with because ultimately we can’t force people to be how we want them to be, no matter how unfair they’re being or how righteous our standpoint might be. This leads nicely to the other type of stressor…
Internal stressors are the stressors that we generate by our own mind. Common internal stressors include: rigidity in thinking, an all-or-nothing attitude, pessimism, chronic worry and unrealistic expectations. External stressors are everywhere, how much stress they cause you often comes down to your internal stressors. For example, in my former life, I was a teacher. Part of this obviously involved talking to large groups of surly teenagers – for me, this was normal and not usually that stressful. However, whenever me and my brother spoke about my job he would shake his head and say that he simply couldn’t fathom how I could do it for a living, such was the stress of public speaking to him (and still is – I think he had a nervous breakdown at the idea of giving a speech at my wedding!) The point being that public speaking isn’t inherently stressful in itself, yet many of us have internal stressors such as a fear of appearing foolish or a desire to blend in that make it so. (Being a fool with one arm is a great help for both those stressors by the way.) In all seriousness, if you recognise yourself in this, Cognitive Behavioural Coaching can help you to ‘rewrite’ these internal stressors so that you can cope with the external more effectively.
All of this is well and good, and hopefully by this point you’re starting to recognise your own stress patterns – what causes it and how you respond to it – however the next step is: how can we manage our stress better? In the long term we want to employ the four As: avoid, adapt, alter and accept.
Avoid unnecessary stress. Not all stress can be avoided, but by learning how to say no, distinguishing between “shoulds” and “musts” on your to-do list, and steering clear of people or situations that stress you out, you can eliminate many daily stressors.
Alter the situation. If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Be more assertive and deal with problems head on. Instead of bottling up your feelings and increasing your stress, respectfully let others know about your concerns. Or be more willing to compromise and try meeting others halfway on an issue.
Adapt to the stressor. When you can’t change the stressor, try changing yourself. Reframe problems or focus on the positive things in your life. If a task at work has you stressed, focus on the aspects of your job you do enjoy. And always look at the big picture: is this really something worth getting upset about?
Accept the things you can’t change. There will always be stressors in life that you can’t do anything about. Learn to accept the inevitable rather than rail against a situation and making it even more stressful. Look for the upside in a situation—even the most stressful circumstances can be an opportunity for learning or personal growth. Learn to accept that no one, including you, is ever perfect.
I’m not going to say too much more on these four notions above as it would require more depth than this article’s scope. What I will say is that these are your long term goals in some respect: to meet each individual stressor with the appropriate ‘A’ as it were. This, like any other aspect of lifestyle change, will take time, patience and diligence. The only way to change habits is to practice. One tip I can give you is this: whenever you find your body showing signs of stress: pulse racing, muscles tightening, speech becoming louder and quicker, just stop dead. Give yourself 20 seconds of doing absolutely nothing before you carry on. During this time, slow your breathing down and the next time you open your mouth, speak slowly. Like I said previously – the immediate physiological stress response is often hugely inappropriate – when we’re stressed we often act without thinking because the body is demanding an immediate response to the perceived threat. But often, there is no threat, we’re in no danger and we DO have time to take a few seconds to allow our rational minds a chance to have a say. This will basically, physiologically at least, reverse the stress reaction – muscles will relax, heart rate will lower and breathing will become deeper and slower – and it will make you feel calmer, more in control and better able to decide which of the four A’s you need to choose. It’s not easy, not by any means and you won’t always be able to do it. But the more often you do, the less stressed you will be.
One more point. You will often hear the same ‘cures’ trotted out for stress such as meditation, yoga, hot baths, soothing music etc. From a personal point of view, I rarely use any of these. The reason being my personality type – I tend to choose the ‘fight’ response and as stated earlier, managing that is often most difficult. Yoga retreats and Tai Chei would probably stress me further! Giving myself time to react and allowing outlets via training and music are vital to my stress response. As is sleep – prioritising sleep for anyone prone to that ‘fight’ response takes on extra importance as a bad night’s sleep is rarely condusive to remaining calm under stress. The point being: understand yourself. If you’re liable to bottle things up whilst wanting to throttle everyone you meet, find an outlet. If you struggle to assert yourself and maybe suffer with a degree of anxiety (the freeze reaction) then maybe CBC will help you to overcome this. Knowing yourself and your own internal and external stressors is the first step to managing them more effectively. In actual fact, most of us probably benefit from a number of approaches. For example, despite my predominantly ‘fight’ reaction , I find reading before bed, writing these blogs, writing in my journal and playing with my son hugely helpful in dealing with stress. So if you are the hot bath and yoga type who’s to say whether a bit of boxercise or primal screaming therapy won’t be helpful?
Anyway, this draws this month’s blog to a close as November itself closes in.
Hope it hasn’t been too stressful.