Whether we like it or not, stress is mostly an unavoidable part of life for millennials. As we juggle increasingly demanding careers and frantic social lives, it’s become standard to zip through life feeling at capacity and tbh, a little bit overwhelmed.
But just because we all feel stress, and often take pride in how well we can power through it and still be on our A-game, that doesn’t mean that it’s ok. Stress is actually *really* bad for our health. According to a survey by the Labour Force, stress accounted for 12.5 million lost working days in 2016/17 with 40% of work related illness being due to stress, depression or anxiety.
So to find out more about why this condition is bad news, we hear from clinical psychologist Dr Jim White, an expert in CBT and common mental health problems and the author of Stress Control.
What does stress feel like?
How stress is felt differs largely from person to person, and we all have a sliding scale when it comes to how much stress we can tolerate, but Dr White says generally it can be described as feeling overwhelmed. “If one image best describes stress, it’s the idea that you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. Combine this with the feeling that there is nothing you can do to control it and stress will get a solid grip of you – and will hang on,” he says.
Some stress is normal and expected, such as during a crazy work deadline, scary presentation, or if you have temporary money worries, but Dr White says to look out for feelings of overwhelming stress when there is no immediate reason for it. “If you are feeling stressed at times when you know you should be relaxed, such as when lying in bed, sitting in front of the TV, having a night out, and so on, then it is time to learn some skills to control it. As you will always have pressures and problems in your life, the way to control stress is to learn better coping skills. This shifts the balance in your favour and you are better able to get a grip on it,” he says.
How to spot stress?
The signs of stress are consuming and negative and the most common indicators that you’re suffering will be: worry, lack of energy, feeling on edge and an inability to switch off, drinking too much, feeling hopeless, waiting for the worst to happen, brooding, poor sleep, feeling irritable or angry, avoiding doing things, panic feelings, poor concentration, feeling worthless, being tearful/ emotional. If you’re experiencing these feelings on a regular basis, it’s time to start tackling the root cause of your stress.
What’s the science of stress?
Stress isn’t just mentally feeling out of sorts, an actual physical reaction occurs in the body. “Stress affects your body. And the way your body reacts affects stress. This helps keep stress alive”, says Dr White.
The central nervous system in the body is responsible for your “fight or flight” response – which is a natural energy-boost and flood of adrenaline when you’re in perceived danger. The main hormone involved in stress and your fight-or-flight response is cortisol.
In times of stress or danger, the hypothalamus in your brain tells your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the parts of your body that may need it in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs. A dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, panicky feelings and an upset stomach are all related to a release of cortisol.
And a release of too much cortisol over an extended period of time can have disastrous effects on the body such as suppressing your digestive system, disrupting your periods and changing how your immune system responds, causing you to get sick more often. Stress that's left unchecked can lead to long term health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
“Once stress gets a grip, fight/ flight can spark off many times each day. Think of a car alarm that is so sensitive that it gets set off not just when someone breaks a window but when someone brushes against a door,” says Dr White.
Limiting caffeine, taking regular exercise, practicing breathing exercises and eating healthily can all help to control your body’s response to stress.
Stress also affects the way we think. “When we are stressed we tend to worry about the same things as everyone else: our health, the health of those close to us, our jobs, money and social life. But we worry much more and feel unable to stop worrying even when we try to. And we often worry about worrying,” says Dr White.
Controlling thoughts is really hard when you’re strung out, but it is a crucial step in how you respond to stress in your life.
“When we are stressed it can seem as if there is a non-stop fight going on inside our heads between a loud, abrasive stress voice and a quiet, common sense voice. When we are calm we can listen to our common sense voice, but when we are stressed the loud stress voice drowns it out,” says Dr White.
Learning skills to control our negative, stressful thoughts can reduce the effects that stress has on the body, therefore weakening the vicious circle of a stressed out mind and depleted body. This can be done by turning down the volume on your stress voice and learn to listen to your common sense voice until you know, in your heart of hearts, that you can believe it, advises Dr White.