Last year, a stress survey conducted by online health check company Forth found that 85% of UK adults experience stress regularly, and over a third of Brits feel stressed at least one full day every week. Their data showed the number one trigger is money issues, then work, health and lack of sleep.
Whatever happened to ‘Keep calm and carry on’? This catchy motto was originally created by the British government in a bid to boost morale as World War II loomed. However, the people behind this operation lost faith in the campaign and the poster was hardly seen. The rediscovery and revival of the message in the 2000s came at a time when our challenges had changed dramatically, but our need for calm was, and still is, as real as ever.
Recognised today as a familiar feeling for many, stress is a combination of our perception of being put under pressure or facing danger, and the response that follows. It can be triggered by all kinds of physical and mental changes (known as ‘stressors’) around us, that we deem to be challenging or a threat.
When such moments arise, we have a natural, built-in stress response that will kick into action. Our nervous system and endocrine system take over as the body tries to protect itself by preparing you to fight or flee the danger. Some bodily functions become supercharged while others are disrupted, leaving the mind and body out of balance. Physiological, psychological and emotional changes take place in an instant as our internal warning system tells us now is the time to immediately defend, or seek safety elsewhere.
It can be hard to function properly, make clear, rational decisions or stay positive when we’re in the throws of a threatening, stressful situation. If our automatic response is regularly triggered and stress is endured for ongoing periods, this disruption and the resulting imbalances can negatively impact our health and wellbeing over the long term.
What are some positive effects of stress?
On the flipside, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Our stress response exists as a useful system to protect us. It can help us to avoid an accident, or to hit a tight deadline. Sometimes, stress can be good for us because it can help us to move through the moment we’re facing most effectively. Maybe you can recall a time when stress elicited super powers you never knew you had – such as sprinting fast to seek help, courageously jumping into action during an emergency or reaching a seemingly impossible deadline with only a few minutes to spare?
How we process and make sense of what’s happening around us, and to us, can help or hinder the stress cycle. A useful way to work with stress is to recognise that some stress is good. For example, we are likely to experience stress as we strive to achieve our goals and pursue a purpose-filled life. While it can be difficult to navigate the path towards the goals we hold most dear, such as competing for an award, getting a new job, public speaking or finishing a degree, the stress we face can fuel us in the greatest of ways to achieve our dreams.
The difference is, this type of stress arises as a result of our actions on a journey of self-discovery and greater ambition. It serves to support our growth and, in time, achievement and this kind of stress is ultimately within our control as we decide whether to press on – or pull back.
While certain sources of stress may not fall within our control, our perspective and next steps do. Stress is a useful sign that something needs our attention, and viewed as such, it can be seen as a loyal friend there to assist us. With mindful awareness, patience and curiosity, it becomes easier to listen to what our stress is telling us, and understand how this natural process is doing its best to guide us to a safer place.
We can have a healthier relationship with stress as we form a better understanding of what is stressful for each of us, how we respond and how we can navigate the process more gently and skilfully. It is empowering to work on creating the mental space and inner strength to choose whether a trigger for stress deserves our immediate attention and action, or not; and to be able to bring a sense of calm and balance, even in the tough times.
5 top tips to tackle stress
Take time out to notice what kind of stress you’re experiencing. Making a clear distinction between positive and negative kinds of stress can be useful when it comes to understanding the root cause, managing your response and deciding your next steps.
Journalling is a great way to stop your thoughts in their swirling tracks and identify what is triggering your current stress response. Writing is such a useful tool; use it to gain a healthier perspective on your situation and to look for patterns and recurring themes that could be causing hurt or holding you back.
Be proactive when it comes to your health and wellbeing. Do the best you can to make informed choices and to take empowered action that will, in time, relieve the stress you’re struggling with. Consider where you can take steps to minimise or eradicate the pressure, set healthy boundaries and ensure you are listening to your own needs in this moment.
Stress has many physical and mental manifestations. It can show up as aches, pains, stiffness, breakouts, inflammation, irritability, anxiety and poor sleep, to name a few. Try releasing the build-up of tension through stretching, yoga, getting a massage, dancing or any other kind of gentle physical activity. This will help to soothe and calm your nervous system and make you feel much better naturally.
The way you inhale and exhale can exacerbate or alleviate your stress levels. Stressful situations often leave you taking short and shallow breaths or even holding your breath in. Instead, taking slow, deep and controlled breaths during challenging times will bring your awareness to the present moment, promote balance and activate a sense of calm within just a couple of minutes.
Featured image by Unsplash/Priscilla Du Preez.