Stress. It seems to be everywhere. Particularly now, with the current COVID-19 situation, everyone is under some sort of stress. Are you someone who is easily stressed? Or someone who is more laid back and goes with the flow?
Stress comes in all shapes and forms. It can be something overtly obvious and short-term, like cramming for a test or running late for work, or it can be something that has been or could be hanging over your head for some time, like financial struggles or chronic illness.
Being stressed itself can have a negative stigma. People are frequently told that it's not good to be stressed and that they need to relax. That kind of pressure to not be stressed can be stressful in itself!
The effects of stress
Stress can affect us on a physical level – high levels of stress have a negative effect on our bodies of which we are often unaware. Stress can cause the overall diameter of your blood vessels to become smaller, causing an increase in blood pressure.
Chronic stress has long been associated with cardiovascular disease. Couple the constriction of the internal blood vessel diameter caused by stress with existing high blood pressure and high cholesterol – both major risk factors for cardiovascular disease – and you’re looking at the potential for a serious cardiac event. These further increases in blood pressure and the chance of a blockage in a blood vessel increase the risk of a sudden stroke or heart attack.
Feeling nervous or having butterflies in the belly are also signs of stress. Other terms that are synonymous with stress are anxiety or arousal. There is a relationship between how much stress, anxiety or arousal you need in order to perform at your best. The relationship can be shown by the Performance-Anxiety curve, which is commonly used by psychologists and therapists in areas such as sports, acting and public speaking.
Basically, in these situations, having little to no stress can be just as detrimental as having a lot of or too much stress. Not enough stress may indicate you don't feel the desire to perform. Too much may make you feel so overwhelmed that it stops you from performing at your best or from performing at all. You want to find a good middle point where you have enough stress to motivate you, but not so much as to debilitate you.
Stress can also cause you to lose sleep, which in turn can make you less focused and may lead to accidents or injury due to fatigue. It can affect mood, with possible knock-on effects to relationships and work performance, and it can also lead to substance abuse.
Stress and hormones
Stress is essentially a hormonal response. When we feel stressed, we release the stress hormone, cortisol. This is the hormone that governs our flight and fight response, so it is essential for living – but too much of it is not good either. Too much of it can result in more visceral fat, increased appetite, high blood pressure, changes in sleep patterns and a general increase in feelings of anxiety.
But we can combat this with another stress hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is the feel-good hormone that people get from hugs and human contact. It's the one that makes you more compassionate. It helps you notice if someone is struggling and makes you want to help, and it helps you recognise who to be around when you are in need of help. This hormone is released after delivery of a baby and is supposed to help with the bonding of a mother and her baby.
Oxytocin is also a natural anti-inflammatory. The heart has receptors for oxytocin, which can help it heal itself from damaging stress. Your body has its own built-in mechanism for stress resilience – when you reach out under stress, you release more oxytocin and your stress response becomes better. We need human connection and meaning in our lives to stay healthy.
We are all affected differently by stress. Resilience, life experience, our own internal genetic make-up and our individual mental health are contributing factors. We all also have different ways to cope with stress, emotionally and psychologically.
But where there is stress there is hope. The other side of stress is that it can give us the strength to be, and do, things that we never thought imaginable. When you experience positive stress, your blood vessels remain open, similar to when you feel joy or courage.
There are many ways in which you can try to reduce stress. Try the things or make the changes that could help you feel more relaxed, stay calm and release tension.
- Work stress can be a big one. Step away from the computer for a break if things become overwhelming, or leave that five minutes earlier.
- Identify and spend time with the people that help you grow and feel good about yourself. Conversely, it may be time to let go of the relationships that cause you stress and unhappiness.
- Try to change your perspective on things that may be giving you stress but which you can’t change. Trying to look at things in a different way, or even viewing stress itself as a positive thing that is there to help you manage the situation, can be beneficial.
- Exercise, meditation and yoga have been shown to help reduce stress for some people. Run out your worries on the treadmill, or stretch away those concerns.
- Take the time for some self-care to help put your wellbeing first, whether that’s eating a healthier, nutritious diet or journaling about your thoughts and feelings.
The best thing is to find what works for you and what works for the situation that you are in, to find the right balance of manageable stress that helps – and not hinders – you.
Be a relaxation warrior, not a stress worrier.
And finally, next time you're feeling stressed, think of it backwards. “Stressed” spelled backwards is “desserts”, so do something sweet for yourself and for others. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a break.
About the author
Maggie has been a paramedic with NSW Ambulance since 2015, working mainly in the Western Sydney and Blue Mountains areas. She has degrees in Paramedic Practice and Science (Psychology). She is passionate about health education and training and also runs her own first aid training courses with a first aid course specially designed for parents and carers. Maggie also has a passion for pain management and yoga therapy, human movement and biomechanics, enhanced by a Diploma in Sports Kinesiology and over 15 years of yoga teaching. She is currently working towards tertiary qualifications in Physiotherapy.