By Dr Nihara Krause, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Founder and CEO stem4
We all know what stress feels like – whether it ranges from feeling on edge, jittery, irritable and rushed, to experiencing a range of physical symptoms such as stress headaches, panic or feeling overwhelmed. Stress occurs in response to threat, it is our survival response and the increasingly impacting symptoms described above are the signs of too much stress, when survival against a real or perceived threat is challenged and your body feels it needs to warn you to protect itself. Much has been written and researched about the experience of too much stress, or ‘bad’ stress. Since it is so unpleasant to experience the ‘benefits’ of stress are often overlooked.
Feeling stressed is perfectly normal. When faced with a challenge, stress acts as a warning system, flooding the body with energy producing chemicals. These act to increase heart rate and blood pressure energising your body. Not only does this power you to perform well but it also sharpens senses and increases concentration, enhancing performance and the ability to keep safe.
Experiencing and managing small doses of stress can help build stress tolerance, providing strength to deal with life’s adversities.
Interestingly, when we are excited or positively challenged, our bodies produce exactly the same chemicals. We therefore experience the same response as the one we do when we are stressed but because we know we are excited or positively challenged, we don’t fear the reactions we experience in our body. So for example, if a person is just about to go on a roller coaster ride they will feel their heart speed up, their breathing quicken, butterflies in their stomach and be on edge. However, they will expect this reaction and therefore accept it as part of the whole experience. These symptoms are exactly the same ones someone who is facing threat will experience – for example, driving a car that keeps skidding, but this time they will label what they experience as fear or anxiety. What differentiates these two experiences is also the knowledge that the roller coaster is safe, whereas driving a car on a very slippery road isn’t perceived as safe. This confirms how important our perception of threat is. So if we work on our perception in should help reduce or manage stress.
Should we then be relabeling all stress as good stress? Research does indicate that if we are able to re-label our body’s responses as normal to what we are facing and even better, break down the threat into manageable chunks, (so for example, we are able to say to ourselves that the feelings we have before an exam indicates our preparedness to be tested and that the focus will be on getting through one question at a time), then we are able to work with the stress response much more effectively.
However, what isn’t helpful for our body to experience is chronic stress. Chronic stress occurs when there are repeating stressors, such as, for example, multiple and unreasonable deadlines. It can also occur when the stress you experience lasts a long time, such as an unhappy home or when stress is inescapable, for example, facing a long period of illness. A serious threat, such as war, for example will create acute or chronic stress in individuals.
- Change your perception of some of the stressors in your life – try labelling what you might see as stress as being excited, passionate, positively challenged, or motivated
- See stress as a helpful warning sign to make a change – a bit like an in built smoke alarm
- Change some of the situations that create negative stress
- Practice self-care to reduce stress. Some techniques include cutting down on caffeine, doing something you enjoy/makes you relax, regular exercise, managing your time, identifying and expressing your emotions
- Download ‘Clear Fear’ – a new app by Dr Krause for stem4 that uses evidence based strategies from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to help children and young people manage anxiety. Free on Google Play and the App Store this autumn. Check out www.stem4.org for release date.