“We were born to be able to be happy in an imperfect world that is endlessly unfolding.” Al Pesso
Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) this year runs from 14-20 May and the focus is on stress and how we are coping with it.
We often get stress mixed up with pressure and use the terms interchangeably. However, they are two quite different things.
It might be helpful to think of pressure as something that is external and stress as something that is more internal. We can have pressure without experiencing stress and actually we need pressure to perform and even to enjoy life. But with too much pressure, we can tip into overwhelm.
We know the symptoms of stress: mood swings, irritability, worry, anxiety, concentration or memory problems, foggy thinking, and fatigue. If the stress continues we may also have trouble switching off, trouble sleeping, and stomach or bowel problems. Stress is something that our body or our nervous system does. Hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released to kick us into fight or flight mode and shut down other systems such as our digestive system and our prefrontal cortex (rational mind). If stress is short-term, all soon returns to balance, but if the stress is prolonged things can start to become problematic. We may even get depressed.
Stress is all about our perceived ability to cope with stressors and the internal resources we have available to help. Stressors are those internal or external things that tip us into stress and overwhelm. In order to combat stress in our lives we need to take a realistic look at what is causing it.
External stressors may include moving house, a death of a loved one, a change of or loss of a job, a break-up or divorce, or financial worries – however, even positive events such as a birth, marriage or new job can be a source of stress. It is important to take a pragmatic look at the stressors in our lives and put them into three categories: things that have a practical solution to them (such as sorting your finances out, or prioritising tasks); things that will get better over time; and things that you cannot do anything about (remember, we live in an imperfect world).
Internal stressors are a little different. If we have lifelong patterns such as perfectionism, taking on too much responsibility, an excessive need for control, or high expectations of self or others, we may need a little help to change them. Likewise, trauma and post-traumatic stress will increase our internal stressors and mean that we more easily experience stress and overwhelm. And if we have low self-esteem or insecure attachment, relationships will be a big source of stress for us.
We can all learn to cope with stress better by learning how to relax properly (remember, it is our body or our nervous system that needs this); exercise is known to help stress levels because it will release hormones such as endorphins or dopamine that counteract the effects of the stress hormones. Of course, a healthy diet, good sleep and even learning mindfulness techniques will all help.
Nevertheless, long-term stress – or early life traumas such as divorce, loss of a parent, bullying, emotional neglect or abuse – will have a lasting effect on our levels of stress hormone and our innate ability to produce the feel-good hormones such as dopamine. This is where we need psychotherapeutic help, which serves to work on a deep level and rewire our brain and body chemistry so that we are able to be happy in this imperfect world.
Sue Tupling is a registered clinical psychotherapist at Embodied Counselling in Stafford.