5 things to keep in mind about stress, for Stress Awareness Month

In our hyper-connected, fast-paced lives – and after two years of a pandemic infused with uncertainty – you’d be forgiven for perceiving stress as a staple of day-to-day life. Stress Awareness Month aims to raise awareness of the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. Here are 5 things to keep in mind about stress.

People living with eating disorders can struggle to tolerate certain emotions, particularly the uncomfortable or overwhelming ones. For some, these more ‘negative’ emotions can remind us of unpleasant past experiences, or we may be fearful of becoming all-consumed by a certain emotional experience.

Because of this, there can be an understandable resistance towards connecting with those difficult feelings and allowing them to help us understand our lived experience better.

Stress is one such example of an uncomfortable emotion. It can make our life feel uncontained or uncontrollable, and as a result, we may try to silence or repress this emotional experience in an attempt to keep the ‘peace’. But in doing so, we risk protracting the emotion and staying in a chronic state.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind about stress

1) There are many different types of stress

Acute stress is the stress that happens for everyone. It’s the type of stress that’s a reaction to a situation that’s potentially dangerous or risky. It disappears as soon as the threat has gone and can actually be enjoyable, for instance, when riding a rollercoaster or standing up for yourself in a difficult situation. The extreme end of acute stress is severe acute stress, which is when you’ve faced a life-threatening situation and may be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Episodic acute stress is the type of stress we experience if we are anxious or worried. Our lives may feel out of control and that there are challenges around every corner. This type of stress can impact your mental and physical health.

Chronic stress is when you experience high levels of stress for a protracted period of time. Not only can this be challenging to your mental health but our physical health can suffer as stress manifests in health conditions and illnesses.

2) Not all stress is bad

‘Eustress’ is defined as “a positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being”. It’s the kind of stress that keeps us engaged and excited in the face of a challenge. Some of us may notice this stress when we’re doing a project or piece of work that we really want to get our teeth stuck into.

What’s more, like many biological reactions stress serves a protective function to put our bodies in a state of alert to danger. When we experience something that is stressful, our body responds by releasing a natural hormone called cortisol. It is released by the adrenal glands as part of our fight or flight nervous system response. Cortisol helps us to deal more effectively with a high-stress situation.

3) Stress should be temporary

But if our cortisol levels stay high for too long, that’s when our health can be implicated. Stress should be something we periodically experience in the face of infrequent threat. If we’re perceiving life as continually threatening, we’re keeping our body in a state of stress and alert that can be incredibly taxing. Gabor Mate, acclaimed physician and addictions expert wrote a book called ‘When the Body Says No’ about the impact of chronic stress:

“The salient stressors in the lives of most human beings today — at least in the industrialized world — are emotional. Just like laboratory animals unable to escape, people find themselves trapped in lifestyles and emotional patterns inimical to their health. The higher the level of economic development, it seems, the more anaesthetized we have become to our emotional realities. We no longer sense what is happening in our bodies and cannot therefore act in self-preserving ways. The physiology of stress eats away at our bodies not because it has outlived its usefulness but because we may no longer have the competence to recognize its signals.” ― Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress

4) It’s our response to stress that matters

It’s not ‘wrong’ to feel stressed under certain circumstances, but our response to stress matters. Rather than trying to repress it or pretend it’s not there, we have to notice when it appears and lean into the information it has for us. We must find ways to self-soothe in response to stress – if we’ve had a tough day or week, we must give ourselves a counter experience that helps us to wind down. As Gabor Mate said, “The research literature has identified three factors that universally lead to stress: uncertainty, the lack of information and the loss of control.” If we can find a way to find certainty, information and control (in a healthy, recovery-focused way), we can mitigate chronic stress.

5) Brush up on the nervous system and poly-vagal theory

Taking an embodied approach to stress can help us to become ‘body-wise’. The poly-vagal theory is a collection of evolutionary, neuroscientific and psychological thought about how the nervous system responds to stressors, introduced by Stephen Porges. Becoming aware of when we’re in a sympathetic, para-sympathetic, or ventral vagal nervous system state can help us to navigate our lives and check our perspective. Read more here.

Our last tip?

Be curious about the role emotions play in helping us to navigate our lived experience. If our emotions are communications – we must see them as signals. When we’re experiencing an emotion, we need to ask ourselves: what is this emotion trying to tell me? What is it pointing to? Think of emotions as tiny red flags letting us know what does or doesn’t feel right. They let us know if something needs to change a bit in our lives, and whether need to look into our toolbox to see if we have a self-caring action or a loved one nearby to support. Without these signals, would never securely know our place in the world.

Mindfulness is a great way of staying one step ahead of stress. Mindfulness is a state of awareness, where you observe what you are thinking and feeling without judgement. The practice brings you into the present, whilst the non-judgemental approach helps you to accept the thoughts and emotions that you witness arising within you. Mindfulness helps us to connect to the here and now by drawing attention to our inner experience.

So, to remember…

  • Feel your feelings (including stress)
  • Notice that everything passes with time and this supports our emotional growth and nurtures resilience in the process
  • Recognise that we all experience a spectrum of emotions, milestones and life achievements. It’s this spectrum of emotions that brings colour and texture to life
  • Keep perspective and nurture resilience. In doing so, we remind ourselves that we are strong enough to cope with anything that comes our way

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