Have you ever felt overwhelmed by looming deadlines, or a sense of feeling generally confused, easily distracted, forgetful, worried, anxious, quick to anger, easily frustrated, despondent and depressed or prone to aimless mental wondering? These can al be traced back to feeling either a low, moderate or high level of stress.
We often use the word ‘stress’ to describe emotional, mental and physical effects on our bodies, such as muscle tension, headaches, insomnia, nervousness, jaw clenching and difficulty breathing. ‘Stress’ has become a commonly used term which covers a wide range of daily experiences. The culture of the Western workplace, and that of many other parts of the world, is predominantly fuelled by stress, sleep deprivation and burnout. It’s the stress of feeling over-worked, too busy, over-connected on social media and under-connected with ourselves and the people closest to us.
Managing your stress is vitally important for your health and wellbeing. Even taking just five or ten minutes per day to relieve stress will improve the quality of your life dramatically. Your quality of life will improve greatly when you know you have the skills to combat everyday stressors.
Stress is the body’s natural response to a challenging situation. Our stress response has evolved to be used when we are in danger as an emergency response. Imagine yourself swimming in the ocean when you are confronted by a 6-metre pointer shark. Your body goes into its natural fight-or-flight mode to get you out of danger and safely to shore. However, what happens more regularly is we’ll be having a relaxing swim in the ocean when something brushes past our leg; in a panic we’ll go straight into our full stress response, then look down and realise it is just a piece of seaweed. How many times in your day do you treat normal everyday events like a white pointer shark? The guy who cuts you off in traffic, a challenging work meeting, the next exam, the next business deal. We often trigger our stress response for normal, everyday events. The wear and tear on our minds and bodies this creates is not only unhealthy, it is unsustainable.
The brain actually has trouble telling the difference between a shark and seaweed, so it very diligently delivers the responses it knows, whether mild, moderate or extreme. Too often our fight-or-flight responses are being triggered day in, day out, which is not how they are most useful. When it is working correctly, our stress response will switch on only every so often, then switch off as soon as it is no longer needed.
Try thinking of your body as your personal bank account. There are activities you can consciously do that put ‘deposits’ in your account to keep it flourishing, just like saving up for something on your wish list. When you have a stress response, it is the same as making a withdrawal from your account. It’s normal and natural to make a withdrawal every now and then, however if it’s happening every day, sometimes five times a day or more, then that’s going to deplete your account pretty quickly; if you let it go over time, then your account will get overdrawn. When your body gets to the point of being ‘overdrawn’, it will have a negative effect on your health, your happiness and ultimately your confidence.
A stressor such as a shark is a clearly identifiable trigger for your stress response; however, the stressors for your mind aren’t always so obvious. Most of the time, the threat is imaginary; your mind can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. It believes what you tell it. It trusts your judgement and follows your every command.
Once we activate our fight-or-flight response, a number of reactions take place in our bodies. The thinking part of our brain shuts down, which doesn’t matter if you don’t need to make decisions or be strategic, but for most of us it will be a problem. Your digestion shuts down, so even if you are going to the effort of having your morning green smoothie, your body won’t be absorbing all of the vital nutrients. Your immune function also shuts down, so you might find yourself getting sick more often, which is not great for anyone!
If you can, think back to a time when you experienced a real threat. In that situation you were probably not thinking of anything else. This is a type of ‘extreme mindfulness’. You were not thinking about your next holiday or what you were having for dinner. You were totally focused on what was happening in that moment, because you had to be. Often we get so anxious and worried about what might or might not happen in the future, or we relive past events so often that it doesn’t matter that these events are only in our heads. If we’re not mindful, we take the imaginary threat to be real and activate our stress response automatically.
Most people have had the experience of a bout of sleeplessness that’s involved thinking about all the projects in their lives: ‘Will I or won’t I get his business deal over the line?’, ‘Will I make the deadline?’, ‘Will I or won’t I get the job I’m going for?’ The next day, it is easy to see there was no actual threat in your bedroom, however, as the point when you activate those thoughts, you also activate your stress response. This then makes all the anxiety-laden fight-or-flight chemicals rush through your body, making it impossible to sleep. It’s the kind of recurring pattern that makes us exhausted as it wears us down.
This stress response can be triggered inappropriately; some of the most common ways are listed below:
A) When we imagine situations to be more threatening than they really are: Have you ever had a meeting that you thought was going to be incredibly challenging and confronting, where you’ve prepared for every worst-case scenario, focused on the negative outcomes and imagined the situation to be far worse than is actually possible? One of us had this experience she was younger and wanted to ask for a pay rise. She had every avenue covered as to why she should get it. She worked it over and over in her mind, anticipating a difficult conversation, then in the meeting her boss said, ‘Yes, I was about to chat to you about this. I think a pay rise is well deserved’. She’d convinced herself it was going to be painful, confronting and challenging and it was exactly the opposite: a brief meeting with the result she wanted.
B) When we worry about events that may not actually happen: Ever found yourself dreaming up an Oscar-winning performance to cope with something far worse than will ever be possible? We certainly have, and it can feel incredibly real until you ask yourself, ‘What am I thinking about this for?’
C) When we repeatedly go over events that have already come and gone: We all tend to be really good at giving ourselves a hard time over something we said or did, even if it happened years ago. In fact is is incredible how we can remember the details of when something went wrong versus all the other things that do go out way. Our minds look for the negative angle; this is our negativity bias. Human beings have evolved to notice and respond more forcibly to the negative, since doing so helped our ancestors to stay alive. Thousands and thousands of years ago it was more important to escape negative situations, often life-threatening experiences, than it was to approach opportunities.
All of this causes wear and tear on our bodies that, over time, can increase our risk of illness. One of the costs of having a distracted and inattentive mind is the extreme activation of the ‘stress response’. When you call on this response day in, day out, over the long term the response can accelerate ageing, contribute to poor sleep, affect your appetite and lead to illness, both physical and mental.
This is an extract from Chaos to Calm by Shannah Kennedy & Lyndall Mitchell published by Viking on 30 January, RRP $32.99. This book is designed to give you advice, tools and exercises that will show you how to switch off, reach your potential and achieve your goals.