Do you know what the highest reported reason for being off work today is? Stress. You might be thinking, “Yeah I’m not surprised, life is stressful!” But it wasn’t always this way. Go back five years and stress, just like any other mental health related symptom, was barely mentioned, let alone given as a reason for needing time off work.
Perhaps the level of stress in our lives has increased over the years. Perhaps it shows how far we’ve come as a society in battling the stigma of mental health, that we are no longer afraid of letting our bosses know that our mental health isn’t quite how it should be. Or perhaps, as some people claim, stress is an overused meaningless word, a term that, in short, is just an excuse.
I guess to really unpick this we need to distinguish what stress actually is. Let me start by dividing stress into two different camps:
- Day-to-day stress — Little bursts of stress throught the day: the traffic jams, the running late, the forgot to a pay a bill.
- Long-term stress — Often due to serious difficult events like loss of a job or grief.
Exposing The Stress Monster
Let’s take a look at daily stress first. Let’s say you’re running late for an interview and you start to feel stressed. Perhaps you’re thinking, “I can’t be late, people will be waiting for me, I don’t want to let them down, people will think I’m unreliable, I won’t get the job, why does this always happen to me?” and the mind spirals downward from there.
At this point your mind is feeding you lots of negative thoughts. Subsequently your body begins to go into protection mode; adrenaline gets pumped round the body and you go into fight-or-flight mode. This is where you’re body perceives danger and you are either ready to fight or run. In this state your physiological responses speed up, your heart rate increases, blood pumps around the body faster, you begin to feel hot, you get sweaty palms and butterflies in the tummy. Eventually, you get to the interview, but due to the state of stress on your body you’re feeling shaky, irritated and anxious. Not an ideal state to be entering an interview in right?
Now let’s think about long term stress. You’ve lost your job. Your constantly worrying about money, when are you going to be able to get another job, what if you never do. Your body does exactly the same as in the previous example, it goes into protection mode but instead of constantly pushing those hormones around in one big burst, it all just bubbles below the surface. Your flight or fight mode is in a constant state of high alert and you suddenly find the smallest of things feel like they are pushing you over the edge. You feel tired, tearful, angry and your thoughts are all over the place. As you can see with both examples the scenarios are different but the results are the same: your body and mind are in a pretty rubbish place.
Stress Is What You Make Of It
The good old oxford English dictionary defines stress as, “a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances,” which I personally think sums it up quite nicely. It highlights that stress is subjective, we don’t decide if we are stressed or not by the circumstance we have been through. Instead, we decide by how it’s affecting us, our behaviour, our routines, our emotions, and our body.
Take two people, both have been made redundant with little warning. Person A starts cancelling appointments with friends, not sleeping well, feels tearful and angry all the time, and has no energy to look for other jobs. Person B feels upset but instead goes to the job centre, looks online, talks to friends and family, goes for walks in the park. Both have experienced what is classified as a stressful event, however only person A’s behaviour indicates someone who was suffering from stress. Once again, highlighting it’s not about the ‘thing’, it’s about how the ‘thing’ impacts you, him, her, or me.
Where To Go From Here?
In response to this, my clients will often ask me, “What’s the magic pill then Nat?” and my response is always the same, “There is none.” And it’s true! I’ve been working in stress management for a long time and here’s the common expectation:
- We have a one meeting, where I give them a few tools and techniques.
- BAM! They they suddenly turn into zen like creatures, floating through their days in peace and tranquility.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but as with everything worth having these things take effort and commitment. It takes effort to choose to do things differently and commitment to believe things can be different whenever you’re faced with stress. That being said, compared to having stress beat you down on a regular basis, using and learning those tools will feel like a breeze and that samadhi will be a little more within reach. Plus (and this is the good bit) these tools are available for anyone to use, anywhere, anytime, anyhow.
Keep checking back over the next few weeks and I’ll be talking through those tools and how you can apply them in your life. In the meantime, take a look at your life and see if you can pick out the daily and long-term stresses in it. Does it often happen at the same place or time? Feel free to share below as we look at how we can confront and ease those stresses in your life.