Everything you need to know about stress. Part 1

Graphic of stressed lady with fingers to her temples

This month is Stress awareness month, which has been held every April since 1992. It encourages healthcare professionals across the country to join forces and increase public awareness about the causes of and cures for modern stress.

So in this spirit, Intrinsic OT is sharing its knowledge and expertise on managing stress with a two part article. The first part below is everything you need to know about stress before you start to tackle it (knowledge is power, after all) and part two will focus on how you go about keeping stress in check.

Part 1: What you need to know about stress.

Firstly, not all stress is bad.

This is a funny one to start us off as the whole point of this article is to help people understand stress so they can keep it in check. So how can stress be good?

It boils down to our very nature and how our genetics code programs us to behave. You might well have heard about the ‘flight or fight’ response before, which is how we react when we feel threatened or in danger.

In prehistoric times if we came across a predator wanting to make us its prey we either ran away as fast as we could – flight – or try to fight our way out. It’s a basic survival instant that kick starts our body into action.

stone age man running from saber tooth tiger

In today’s modern society a healthy level of stress still kick starts us into action. If we had no stress in our lives we could argue life would be so much simpler, more manageable and generally more enjoyable. However, it would also be incredibly boring and not very successful.

It is stress that challenges us, stretches us, gets us doing things we never thought we would before. It’s only when a deadline is really looming that we seem more able to focus and get the job done.

It’s when we are stressed at not getting the exam results we need that our minds kick into gear to study hard.

A girl in school uniform looking worried as she is studying

Stress is a necessity in our world and gets quite a bad rep, but if it wasn’t for stress you probably wouldn’t be alive right now. Stress has been built into our very DNA and is just as important as sustenance or sleep.

When does stress become bad?

This is an easy one. Stress becomes bad when it starts to negatively impact on how we engage in life. Pretty broad I know but that’s the beauty of human life – we are all so unique. So to express this clearer it’s probably best to share examples.

Stress becomes bad when:

  • It has been prolonged over a period of time – With the flight or fight scenario it is designed to be a short, sharp injection of stress which gets you moving and to safety. Then you need to recover, allowing your body to destress and make sense of what’s just happened. We are not designed to sustain long periods of stress. If we are subjected to this it takes a toll on our mental health.
  • There is no let up – In this way stress is similar to sleep. We need sleep for our bodies to function – to rest and recharge for the next day. Similarly, we need a break from stress in order to maintain our mental health and not become unwell.

 Does sleep count as a break? Not so much. Sleep is crucial because our mind and body need to switch off. But to have a meaningful break from stress we need enjoyment, laughter, feelings of freedom and general light heartedness. Without this we are simply existing from one day to the next trying to manage the levels of stress in our lives.

Women leaping in the air at the beach looking free and happy
  • It starts to impact on your day to day activities – This happens when stress starts to impact on your cognitive abilities. Being able to concentrate or focus for prolonged periods, managing different pieces of information and sorting through them quickly in your mind, ability to plan ahead and be prepared. If you are finding these things difficult it is likely that stress is the cause.
  • It starts to impact on your relationships. This one I have experienced firsthand, as I am sure most of us have. When it comes to negative things we each have a tolerance level of how much we can take before we start to get annoyed. If you are stressed, and consistently stressed, this tolerance level gets lowered. It’s like our bodies have exerted so much energy into being stressed and dealing with this that it hasn’t got anything left to deal with the other things that annoy us in life. We become more irritable, easily annoyed and generally not much fun to be around. When this happens it’s certainly time to take action. Relationships are far too important to allow stress to cause any sort of damage.

Getting on top of stress

Understanding stress and its negative and positive effects is key to getting the upper hand. Stress is simply a biological function and once you understand how it works, you’re half way to learning how to control it. The next stage is to understand how stress specifically affects you and how you react to stress. This is covered in Part two, which also seeks your views on how you manage stress.

Here at Intrinsic OT we’d love to learn from your experiences of stress and together can make stress something that we rely on when we need it and not something which governs our everyday lives.

To find out more about Intrinsic OT and what we offer check out our website www.intrinsicot.co.uk

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