Stress. It’s a word that gets used often in today’s busy-ness obsessed world, but do we really know what we are talking about when we say we are “stressed”. What is stress, really? Stress is anything which causes a person to feel unable to cope or pressured beyond what is comfortable, from feeling the urgency of a looming deadline to the blind panic one might feel whilst running from a dangerous predator. Both these examples place the person under stress to a degree.
Types of stress: internal and external
The term ‘stress’ is used in both physics and psychology. Both mean similar things, something is causing the system (you) to move beyond a state of equilibrium. When applied to humans, stress can be anything that causes feelings of pressure, tension or discomfort. There are generally two types of stress that humans experience: Internal stress and External Stressors.
Internal stress is stress arising from thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations (feeling hungry, tired, sick) and as a result of trauma. All these things increase tension which we experience as “stress”.
External stressors can come in the form of time constraints, deadlines, traffic, obligations, appointments, demands from others and financial burdens. These are all forms of external stress.
They both play off each other, in that external stressors cause internal stress, and internal stress can make it more difficult to adapt to external stressors.
Dealing with internal stress
Managing internal stress can be tricky. Much of it happens below the level of consciousness and it can seem like our thoughts, reactions and emotions are automatic or just ‘how we are’. This is not the case. Internal stress can be managed by increasing awareness of the content of our thoughts; paying close attention to the words we are saying to ourselves in private, tuning in to our emotional responses; asking questions of oneself such as, what sensations are present when I think these thoughts and generally listening to our body. Sometimes we are just tired, hungry, angry or thirsty. Sometimes, managing stress can be as simple as tending to our physical needs as they arise. For example, you might be tempted to work through lunch because you feel stressed about the volume of work you have to get through. However, working on an empty stomach makes it difficult to focus and you end up making a mistake. This ends up increasing your feelings of stress and overwhelm. If you had stopped when you were hungry and had something to eat, you would have saved yourself hassle later on.
Given that internal stress affects our thoughts, how we feel, and our actions, it is important to have tools on hand to manage all three types of internal stress. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) strategies and Mindfulness based behavioural therapies (such as DBT, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction are all good therapies for understanding how our thoughts, emotions and actions affect each other, and how getting a handle on how these three things can impact our ability to manage stress.
Managing stressful thoughts
Often the way we think about a situation causes us to feel differently. For example, if we think of things in a negative way then we are likely to feel upset and that may cause us to act irrationally or impulsively. And, usually when we act from a stressful place, we usually end up doing things that ultimately make our situation worse, and that of course, leads to more stress. For example, you get invited to dinner with a group of people you don’t really know all that well. This is a situation in which a lot of people may experience some nervousness or anxiety about anyway. However, if your mind starts coming up with thoughts such as “I’m hopeless in these situations, I never know what to say, What if nobody wants to talk to me, Why am I so ridiculous… You get the idea, it’s easy to see how one negative thought leads to another, and another, and how pretty soon the idea of cancelling altogether seems like a good idea. However, if you had stopped yourself at any point from thinking these thoughts and consciously made a decision to think different thoughts, more positive or even neutral thoughts, the negative thought train may not have had a chance to build momentum. Learning how to tune into your thoughts and deciding whether or not these thoughts are helpful, useful or accurate takes time and patience, but it is a skill well worth practicing. At first, you may find that you have already allowed your thoughts to get the better of you and have already acted on those thoughts and are feeling regretful before you remember that you are supposed to be practicing this new skill. Don’t let that worry you. At least you picked up, albeit after that fact, that you could have chosen to think differently. Keep at it, eventually you will catch yourself mid-negative thought and actively change how you think about a situation and then choosing more positive thoughts, change how your feel and act. It takes courage, patience and practice but it gets easier the more you try.
Handling stressful emotions
Focusing on your thoughts, thinking patterns, unhelpful beliefs about yourself is a great start. However, sometimes, stress seems to hit us out of the blue. Like an emotional storm that feels uncontrollable and all consuming. It all happens so fast that before we know it, we have said something, done something or taken something we regret. When this happens, our ability to think, act rationally or even speak can be affected. The opposite can also be true. Emotional stress can build up gradually, or we may experience a series of emotionally stressful events. Sometimes, our tendency is to ignore these feelings, to push them down, or to sometimes drink or use substances as a way of ‘self-medicating’ or coping. This can sometimes go on for some time and become a way of being and merely existing, but it is not really thriving or sustainable.
The best way to handle emotional storms or feelings is to stop. That is, stop whatever it is you are doing, pay attention to the feeling or the emotions as they are happening. If you are in the middle of an emotional storm, you often act out that emotion in ways that you usually regret. The best thing you can do if you find yourself in an overwhelming emotional storm is to hold on and wait for it to pass, and it will. Ground yourself in the present moment, (breath, feel something, look at something in the room) and count to 10, breathing in and out slowly as you do. Sometimes, going for a quick walk or a run can do wonders to settle an emotional storm. And yes, it’s o.k. to cry if you want to.
Learning to experience, process and attend to your feelings as they happen is also a skill that may take some practice. Sometimes, we have old ideas about feelings that may hold us back from experiencing certain emotions. Old “programming” from childhood that may tell us that this emotion Is bad, or not acceptable. What is important to know is that all emotions are healthy, and are neither right nor wrong, they just are. They are our truth in the moment. Emotions don’t harm us it is what we do to avoid feeling those emotions or when we allow our emotions to get the better of us that causes the most damage.
Stress inducing habits
Sometimes, stress can encourage us to take short-cuts in an attempt to manage day to day or because we fear dealing with the underlying cause of our stress. Sometimes this fear is valid. We may have responsibilities, debts to pay, or children to look after and taking time out to manage our stress properly can sometimes seem like too much of a big issue to tackle, or it can slip way down on the ‘priorities’ list of school runs, work meetings, deadlines and bills etc. However, often the short-cuts we take to manage our stress in the sort term unfortunately tend to be not so good for us in the medium to long term. Alcohol, just for example, can lead to serious health problems, relationship issues, loss of time and even premature death in some cases (car accidents, mishaps, violence). In-fact, addictions in general are linked quite strongly with childhood trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Trauma reactions generally increase stress in the body and an affected person may be more likely to turn to addictive behaviours or substances as a way of coping with the ‘unspeakable’. However, it is important to know that addictions don’t really solve a problem, they just delay the inevitable. Other stress inducing habits include poor time-management, staying up late (when you know you have to get up early the following day), eating junk or takeaway food in the name of ‘convenience’, leaving things to the last minute rather than attending to them as they arise,
External Stress: Prevention is better than cure
External stress as stated above involves stress that is external to you. First thing I recommend is doing what I call a ‘stress audit’. That involves simply writing down a list of all those things that cause you stress and working out what items you can do something about and those you can’t. For a very simple example, driving to work often causes a lot of stress because the traffic is out of control and getting worse. Consider taking public transport or leaving 15 minutes earlier. Or if your work is flexible, arrange for a later start time to avoid the peak hour crush. That is a very simple example and granted, there are some stressful situations which are out of your control. For those situations, practice letting go of struggling with unhelpful thoughts related to a situation you cannot control and try to focus your attention on those things that you can do something about. However, for those things that are in your control, small changes can add up to huge benefits when you put your mind to useful thinking and problem solving.
Making concrete lifestyle changes can be challenging, especially when coupled with having to give up an addiction or habit which previously seemed like your only way of managing or coping. It is well worth the effort however when you find out how to properly deal with stress in ways that truly benefit you and those around you.
Complex trauma and stress management
O.k. time for a disclaimer. The above advice is general in nature and you should consider your individual circumstances before following my or any advice you read on the internet for that matter!
However, I do want to acknowledge for some people who have experienced significant and extended trauma or who suffer with the effects of Complex-PTSD the above information may seem contrite or over-simplistic for your situation. I get it, however, trauma is not what happened to us but how our body responds to what has happened. This response creates added intensity to our experiences of and dampens our ability to handle every-day stress. The above techniques and ideas may not be and is not intended to be an overarching solution to complex stress, but the basic ideas are sound and can help with some of the effects of complex trauma such as anxiety, addiction, depression and avoidance.
If you are experiencing the above symptoms, seek out help. Your GP is often the first port of call however, it is easier than ever to find a therapist online or try out some of these online based courses for managing stress and anxiety. Most of them are free too which is not a bad thing.