Millions of people, including children, are seeking professional help for stress-related issues all over the world today. These issues may lead to or are being camouflaged as interpersonal problems, attention difficulties and behavioural problems among other issues. An increasing number of people are being diagnosed with stress-related diseases, or are living with undiagnosed acute or chronic stress. Often people blame their work for this.
It may be part of the truth, but doesn’t necessarily give the full picture and understanding of why so many people are dealing with stress-related issues and burnout. The question is how to understand the stress response itself. The answer might lie in both the modern way of living, and also in the way we, as a society, approach stress and other mental and emotional issues—which is often by searching for a quick fix to make our symptoms disappear.
The first official definition of stress was created in 1936 by Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye known for his work on the hypothetical non-specific response of an organism to stressors. He stated that stress is “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”.
However, this definition lacks an explanation of what kind of response the body has. The American Institute of Stress states that stress is not only a change in a body response but more specifically a “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension”.
Stress can be good
The stress response itself has an evolutionary and survival component to it, the so-called ‘fight-or-flight’ mechanism. This response helps us mobilise energy and catapults us into action when needed. Thus a certain level of stress can be constructive, for example to catapult motivation and action in situations we need to act without delay or to stimulate productivity in work-related situations.
The problem is when the stress response reaches a certain threshold or when our mind and body is constantly on a state of stress. Then the ’fight-or-flight’ response—and thus our stress experience—becomes more or less chronic.
It’s important to understand that stress is a subjective experience. It starts already at the level of perception. Our brain is wired in such way that it prefers the simplest or most familiar interpretation of any stimulus. It is more demanding on our cognitive apparatus if faced with a chaotic or ambivalent environment (a lot of different or contradictive stimulus)—and thus our brains and bodies.
Why do we feel stressed
For stress to be experienced, whether it is from a good or bad situation, there must be a perceived stressor causing tension within the individual. Whenever we have an emotional reaction to something, it involves some kind of judgement or categorisation along the spectrum of ‘treating’ and ‘not treating’ or ‘manageable’ and ‘not manageable’ towards what is being perceived.
Even if we’re often unaware of it, every time we react to something, some degree of excitement or tension is created in the nervous system. The same happens when we experience what is called cognitive dissonance—this happens when what we believe or know is right is in conflict with how we act.
The resulting stress may be experienced as physical, emotional and/or mental stress.
The modern way of life doesn’t seem to be helping much either. Nowadays we live in complex environments with constant stimulations and demands in our physical surroundings, including more or less constant interactions with other people and different types of technology. It seems like people feel like they have to be accessible at any time, while also being afraid of missing out on something. People often seem to define themselves and their worth in terms of how much they are able to do, achieve and engage with at any given moment. No wonder people feel stressed!
Finding a solution
People might try to escape the stress-related issues or environment in a quick-fix manner by taking pills, going on sick leave for some time or going on holidays to remote islands. This may give temporary relief, but won’t necessarily solve their stress-related issues in the long run.
This means there is room for a huge market of therapists and coaches offering solutions to ‘manage stress’. This often involves learning to identify your stressors and where the stress is felt in the body, learning time management and relaxation techniques and more—often focused on how to manage the symptoms of stress. This is of course a lot better than taking a pill and expect your stress issues to heal, and it can for sure have certain effect during a given time frame and for certain stress-related issues.
But often a deeper understanding of the root of stress and how to prevent it in the long run is lacking. Sometimes this root is both in the environments we live or work in, and in the way we react to and interact with these environments—including other people.
Take the cue to be led to a new way of living
The symptoms of stress can be understood as communication about imbalances on mental, emotional and/or physical level. If one of these areas is in imbalance, it will affect the other areas as well. The stress response tells us there is also some kind of resistance and non-acceptance involved that creates tension: Reactions, resistance or non-acceptance of your current environment or life situation.
If you were accepting and embracing your life as it is in the current moment or if you really understood the message of your symptoms, you would probably not be experiencing prolonged or recurring tension and stress.
So, how could you approach your stress in a more constructive way?
Listen to and contemplate on what your mental, emotional or bodily stress symptoms really are telling you. Is it something in your current focus or way of living, working or interacting with others that is making your stress levels build up?
Ask yourself if you’re making your everyday life more complex than necessary. Also be honest with yourself and see if you’re resisting or avoiding something that makes the stress build up. Resistance and avoidance makes the tension grow, and it also makes things more complicated and more difficult to get to the root of. Try to simplify and face these challenges to overcome them and release the tension.
Try these for a change
- Simplify and declutter both your environment and mind whenever possible.
- Try to focus on one or just a very few things at a time.
- Turn of your phone or take a break from social media before and after a certain hour.
- Don’t try to distract yourself by constantly seeking stimulation or rewards.
- Cut down on your to-do lists and demands on yourself, and practise saying ‘no’ to others.
- Let go of the constant urge to judge, categorise, compare, compete and achieve.
By reducing your availability, your demands on yourself and the distractions of constantly being fed with information and impressions, your mind and body gets a chance to rest, declutter and recharge.
Ask yourself if you are really living in the present moment. Or are you assuming something about the future that makes you feel stressed out? Analysing the past or worrying about the future creates a lot of unnecessary mental and emotional stress. One of the best buffers against stress and related diseases is to be fully in the present moment.
Start with reconnecting with yourself
To connect fully with one or more of your senses or with your breath is one of the best ways to make sure you are in the present moment. Being in nature could be a great context of practising this, until you are able to transfer it to other contexts.
Make sure you get at least six to seven hours of undisturbed sleep during the night. Practise some kind of exercise or movement regularly, whether it is going to the gym, running, dancing, doing yoga or going for walks. This will help your body and mind become more resilient and prevent accumulation of mental, emotional and physical stress.
Try these at work
- To prevent unnecessary stress in the workplace roles and responsibilities should be made clear
- Communication should be as simple and transparent as possible
- Workers should be inspired to act together as one collaborate whole, each contributing based on their uniqueness and capacity, instead of competing and comparing themselves to each other, and rushing towards an illusionary finish line.
Simplify your daily routine and be more in the present moment both at work and home, while also being more aware of the way you react to and interact with other people and your environment.
Remind yourself that your worth has nothing to do with how much you do or ‘achieve’ or how much you can manage to split your focus at a given moment. This will probably allow you to enter a less stressed and more peaceful and balanced state more often.
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