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Stress - it's not all bad

By Kathryn Spence

Accredited BACP Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, Accredited BABCP CBT Therapist, EMDR Therapist

InnerFocus Therapy

7 March 2022



What is stress and why is it helpful?


We all need stress, without it we wouldn't move a muscle! Our stress response is driven by the hormone Cortisol, and at the right amount of supply, cortisol helps us be motivated, avoid danger, suppress inflammation and helps regulate our sleep wake cycle. Here's an example about how this works:

When we’re asleep our cortisol levels are low; low stress = sleep! Upon waking our Hippocampus (an area of our brain) activates the production of cortisol and this increases within 30 minutes until around midday. This initial 30 minute period is referred to as Sleep Inertia and it is why we often really can’t be bothered and don’t want to get out of bed when we first wake up. Our drive to sleep then increases as cortisol levels decline; this tends to happen mostly at around 1-2pm and then climbs again. Then it starts to decline until it’s at it lowest at around 1-2am; this is a particularly easier time to fall asleep when we're having sleep problems.


We need the cortisol and stress in our body because:

  • When we’re in times of danger, there is an initial bodily release of Adrenaline (another hormone) which mobilises our body in milliseconds to fight or flight. A few minutes later, we also release cortisol, this in turn triggers our liver to release glucose (sugar) so we have more energy to escape stressful situations.

  • It helps us regulate our sleep wake cycle.

  • Cortisol increases the availability of substances that repair bodily tissues, again this is vital when we’re in a threatening situation so if we’re injured our body can start healing and repairing tissues.

  • Cortisol helps to control our metabolism and how our body uses the fats, carbs and proteins we consume for energy, which helps us to have the energy we need to do everyday tasks.

  • At the right levels, cortisol boosts our immunity by preventing inflammation in our body.

  • Cortisol also helps to regulate blood pressure, keeping it at a level which is beneficial to us.


When does stress and cortisol become a problem?


We may all have an understanding that ‘stress is bad for us’, like I said above, an acute stress response to survive danger or optimum levels of stress is healthy and adaptive. However yes, when it is chronic stress and our levels are high, this can cause negative consequences, such as:

  • Digestive problems (IBS for example)

  • Body tension including headaches or back neck and shoulder pain

  • Sleep problems

  • Weight gain

  • Forgetfulness

  • Impaired concentration

  • Long-term physical health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes

  • Emotional health problems such as anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and trauma disorders

  • Increased irritability

  • Decreased libido

  • Ruminating about the past or worrying about the future (rather than being in the present)

  • Self-criticism

  • Procrastination or lack of organisation


Cortisol levels can be unhelpful when they’re at levels which are too low or too high. It has been found that in those suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) have low levels of cortisol. This makes sense, as a key symptom of CFS and ME is extremely low energy levels. CFS and ME seem to mimic our ‘burn out’ response, which is similar to the exhaustion phase of the stress response (once we’ve escaped from the danger, our energy levels drop), which can be traced back to a prolonged period of stress, history of trauma, or activation of our threat system before we go into this prolonged state of ‘burn out’ / hypoarousal / chronic low energy, which is characteristic of these conditions.


How can we care for ourselves and manage stress?


A common reason for stress are the expectations we set for ourselves or the expectations others put on us (e.g. unreasonable expectations from our boss or colleagues). It is possible the expectations we put on ourselves come from conditional acceptance as a child; that we are OK as long as we are e.g. successful, not a failure, keep others happy, we don’t have negative feelings etc. etc. Overall, this affects how we see ourselves, our feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.


The first step is to identify the expectations… “Am I scared of failing?” “Do I feel like I have to succeed to be worthwhile or acceptable?” “Are these standards reasonable?” “Where do these beliefs come from?”


If you identify that you’re feeling stressed due to your own personal expectations, which are not realistic, then you may need to seek therapy or do your own personal self-reflection and update what is reasonable for you as an adult, dependent on your individual circumstances. And most importantly, these expectations should be flexible depending on the situation and what else is going on at any one time.


If you identify that you’re feeling stressed due to unreasonable pressures being put on you from others, e.g. at home or at work, then these need to be problem solved, possibly with some help from others; friends, family, Occupational Health, co-workers, managers etc.


Where do we pick up bad stress habits?


Unfortunately, we’re not usually taught how to de-stress, we only learn from what is modelled to us, so if our parents were good at managing stress then we learn helpful ways to manage stress in our adulthood. HowHowever, if our caregivers weren’t taught well either, then they couldn’t model how to manage stress effectively, and this continues through the generations. If only this was part of our schooling, then this would give us a much better chance!


Stress Bucket

Imagine that we all have a bucket; some peoples are bigger than others, but it gets filled up with stressors, such as tasks, health problems, responsibilities, deadlines, social events etc. The fuller it gets the more stressed we are until it overflows and we feel we cannot cope anymore.


So what can we take out of our bucket? What can we delegate? What can be completed? What can we get rid of that doesn’t need doing right now?


And, how can we put some holes in the bucket? What coping skills do we have that can help empty our bucket?


Some useful ways to manage our stress in a helpful way


Work to Live

We can often have an over-inflated sense of responsibility to work; when you’re unwell do you phone in sick and prioritise your self-care? Do you work longer hours than you’re paid to? Do you take lunchbreaks? Etc. etc.


Let's visit the reason why do we go to work? Hopefully, we value and enjoy our job and take satisfaction and pleasure from it (I know I do, but many of us don't). But fundamentally we work to earn money in order to enjoy LIFE – our family, holidays, hobbies, socialising etc. And these are often what get affected and neglected when we prioritise work over living.


So, when you’re at work, work hard, prioritise tasks which are most urgent and important, seek help when you need it, delegate and recognise your achievements throughout the days. And also:

  • Turn off your emails and phone when it’s not your working hours or if you’re not on call

  • If you work from home, have a designated area where you can leave when you’ve finished your working hours

  • Spend 5-10 minutes at the end of the day thinking about what you’ve achieved and what tasks are still to be completed – make a list so they don’t need to keep circulating around your head, and when they pop in that evening, remember you have a list and will look it again when you’re next at work

  • Take at least a 20-30 minute lunch break every day! We perform better when we’ve eaten and our brain has had a rest, so also have your break away from your desk

  • If you’re lunching with colleagues, try and not talk about work

  • On your commute home from the office, listen to music, read a book or unwind in a way that suits you

  • If you work from home and you no longer have a commute – then go for a walk so you can have a wind down period

Remember, you work to live, you don’t live to work!


Mindful Eating


We often eat fast and on the go, this doesn’t help with our digestion or give us a sense of rest or enjoyment of our food. STOP, look at your food for a second, describe it to yourself, chew your food slowly and taste all the flavours, feel the texture, smell the aromas, even hear the sounds your food makes; “crunch”. Slow down and enjoy your food.


Work, Rest & Play

When I think about stress, I always think about the old Mars Bar advert – “A Mars a day, help you work, rest and play”. OK, so eating a Mars Bar every day may not be so good for us, but the message is bang on! We need a healthy balance in our lives of:


WORK – any task that gives us a sense of satisfaction or achievement, sometimes this is paid employment but there are many other responsibilities we have too.


REST – something that isn’t too taxing, but this is very individual, some people may rest by having a relaxing bath, some by reading, watching TV, taking a walk, meditation, yoga, chatting with friends – whatever works for you which doesn’t over tax your mind or your body.


PLAY – anything that we get pleasure from – where we can be spontaneous, have fun, laugh, enjoy and feel good!


Delegation


We may have a tendency to do everything ourselves, maybe because it has always been that way, maybe because we believe it’s our job, maybe because it’s expected of us, maybe because we want it done our way (“the right way”). Even so, it increases our responsibilities and means we get less time to re-charge. If there is something you can delegate, do it and pass on the responsibility to someone else along with it! If this is anxiety provoking, then start small and then build it up over time once your confidence has grown.


Problem Solving


Some people have a tendency to spend time and energy problem solving hypothetical worries which are unlikely to ever happen, and avoid, procrastinate and bury our heads in the sand when real problem are happening e.g. credit card bills, tasks to complete, paperwork, Uni work… We need to swap the behaviours:


Real problems = active problem solving

Hypothetical problems = avoid doing anything about them and let them pass



Relationships and Connections

As social creatures, humans need relationships. Loneliness can cause many emotional and physical health problems. But we are all different and need relationships in different ways.


Introverts recharge their batteries with alone time, whereas extroverts recharge when they’re socialising.


Identify which you are: When you’re socialising, does it drain you and you need some alone time to get your energy back? You’re more likely to be introverted.


When you’re around people do you become more energised? If you spend too much time alone does it drain your energy and you need to see people again to make your energy rise? If so, you’re probably more extroverted.


Extroversion and Introversion are not really about whether you’re shy or the life or soul of a party!


Either way, we still need people and relationships – identify how and when works best for you.


Catch Self Critical Thinking


I know as a Brit, we aren’t big on compliments and self-praise, but this is not the way we raise children, we often big them up and try and make them feel good (or we should be!). Turn this skill inwards and be more self-compassionate.


Notice self-critical thoughts and name them – “I had the thought that…” This helps create some distance between us and our thoughts and helps us not believe them as fact.


Identify your good qualities, skills and start practicing giving yourself praise.


Calming the Body Down When We’re Feeling Stressed


Based on Polyvagal Theory, we can help to calm our body by getting it back to our rest and digest state of homeostasis. These are called 'Bottom Up' Strategies and include breathing exercises and other body orientated strategies. You can read and learn more about some of these strategies in my Calming the Body Blog.




Eat Well

It’s commonly known that eating well and exercise are good for the mind and soul, so I will also repeat it here as it is very true. We are what we eat – eating a healthy balanced diet is good for our body and our stress levels. Binge eating, comfort eating and trying to control our diet will increase our stress. And being hangry never helps! So eat small and often. Also, include foods with Tryptophan – which is an amino acid which helps increase serotonin levels (which in turn helps our mood) and can be found in eggs, milk, chicken, peanuts, cheese, beans and seeds.


Get Moving

Getting our body moving helps burn off adrenaline and cortisol (our body’s threat hormones which are increased when we’re stressed). Exercise also gives us a sense of achievement, is good for our digestive and physical health as well as releases Dopamine and Endorphins, our ‘happy hormones’. It doesn’t have to be the gym, it can be a brisk walk, a run, yoga, Pilates, skipping, jumping..., anything you want..., try out a few until you find something you enjoy.



Play


As adults, we often forget the importance of play time! We don’t really grow out of it, but we do on a societal level. This needs to be reframed – play is helpful in terms of finding pleasure and is a good way to have leisure time. It doesn’t matter what it is you do as a leisure activity if it’s pleasurable to you (and as long as it isn’t harmful in the long-term). Engaging in recreational activities has been found to lower cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate. It can also give us a sense of control and choice in our lives, which again helps reduce feelings of stress.


Some ideas:

​Watching your favourite TV programme

​Listening to music

​Reading

​Playing instruments

​Board games

​Singing

​Sports – watching or playing

​Bowling

​Spa days

​Cycling

​Cinema

Walking

​Crosswords / Suduko

​​Swimming

​Dungeons and Dragons

​Dancing

The list is endless – just follow what you enjoy doing…


Summary


Remember that an optimum level of stress is beneficial for us, we need some to get out of bed in the morning. But too much can be detrimental to us. We’re kind of like Goldilocks and I hope some of these techniques help you stay in the middle ground.

Show Sources:

Deary, V. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Functional Somatic Symptoms training workshop.


Porges, S. W. (1995). "Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A Polyvagal Theory". Psychophysiology. 32 (4): 301–318.


Steiner, C. (2009). The Heart of the Matter: Love, Information and Transactional Analysis.


https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22187-cortisol


https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037


https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-science-fandom/202109/why-leisure-is-never-waste-time


Various other sources of information learned over the years with no specific sources known.

 

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I am an accredited therapist and offer in-person therapy in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) as well as online therapy within the UK. Please contact me to enquire about therapy:


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