On high alert?
Our ‘flight or fight’ response in the face of imminent life-threatening danger has enabled humankind to survive so far. But this distress signal from the brain can greatly aggravate modern-day stress and anxiety, and it needs to be managed. Tim Power reports
Sabre-toothed tigers may have died out 11,000 years ago but no one has told the amygdala – the primitive part of our brain that controls our conditioned ‘flight or fight’ response. While this response was vital for early man’s survival in order to react to danger, in today’s world the workings of the amygdala can contribute to the build-up of stress and anxiety.
Most people have experienced this ‘flight or fight’ response – pounding heart, short breaths, tense muscles and sweating – but these physical effects usually fade once the threat or difficult situation passes. However, if you are constantly stressed your body stays in a state of high alert and you could be in danger of developing stress-related symptoms.
On the whole, stress is a mechanism designed to protect us by helping us to respond quickly to ‘dangerous’ situations: typically perceived pressures from a new or unexpected situation or event; something that threatens our wellbeing; or a situation that gives us a feeling of loss of control.
In most circumstances this stress is helpful as it gives us the energy and perseverance to ‘push through’, for example, to get up in front of people and give a speech or make it to the finish line of a marathon.
We all encounter different levels of stress in our everyday lives, from crossing the road to meeting a tight deadline at work, but there are situations that can heighten our stress levels, such as relationship breakdowns, insecurity at work, bereavement, coping with a serious illness or financial problems.
Living with heightened levels of continual stress can cause us to feel permanently in a fight or flight state. Rather than helping to push people through this situation it can actually overwhelm them, making people feel they are unable to cope. This can lead to anxiety and other mental health problems such as depression.
Education and Information Officer Reuben Millward facilitates anxiety management groups and one-to-one sessions for mental health charity RAMH, in Renfrewshire, and also works to raise awareness and challenge the stigma around mental health issues.
He said: “Stress is natural and is here to protect us, but we are all different in how we deal with stress. It’s a very subjective condition and can be related to a whole range of factors from people’s personalities, education, profession, family situation, life experience and learned coping strategies.
“When people experience high levels of stress it can be debilitating and can start to affect their work and relationships. It impedes their cognitive faculties, their ability to focus, make decisions and learn, and the build-up of stress can become the precursor to an anxiety response.”
Reuben said there are a number of simple and immediate strategies that people can do to ‘de-stress’ (see panel above) but where stress has become more of an issue he advises seeing a GP or a mental health professional for advice. He uses cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT) in his group and one-to-one sessions, which help people to manage their stress by changing the way they think and behave. CBT is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle. CBT challenge people’s reactions to negative thoughts and stressful situations and gives them coping strategies to improve the way they feel.
Reuben said: “The build-up of stress can be controlled and managed by a number of techniques, but, ultimately, it is dependent on the individuals going away and practising the skills and techniques we teach them.
“The CBT approach I use is very collaborative and based on empowering the individual to become their own therapist, or as I like to say: ‘their own manager of life’.
“This is essentially what this is all about: learning to live healthily and being able to manage stress, which we all encounter in our daily lives.”
Symptoms of stress
Stress can affect how you feel emotionally, mentally and physically, and also how you behave.
How you may feel emotionally
- irritable and “wound up”
- anxious or fearful
- lacking in self-esteem.
How you may feel mentally
- racing thoughts
- constant worrying
- difficulty concentrating
- difficulty making decisions.
How you may feel physically
- muscle tension or pain
- sleep problems
- feeling tired all the time
- eating too much or too little.
How you may behave
- drinking or smoking more
- snapping at people
- avoiding things or people you are having problems with.
Find out more at: www.nhs.uk/…/understanding-stress/
Strategies to relieve stress
Belly breathing. Breathe in through the nose to fill your lungs from the belly upwards. Inhale for a count of five, hold for five and exhale over five. Repeat until you feel more relaxed.
Muscle relation. When you are stressed the body tenses up. To relieve this tension, tense up various muscle groups for a count of 10, then relax. Start with the scalp, forehead, muscles around the eyes and work methodically down the body through various other muscle groups in the shoulders, upper and lower body, legs, arms, feet and hands.
Mindfulness. Take a break and walk in a natural environment, like a park, wood or by a river. Focus on the natural sounds around you and block out any other thoughts.
Relaxation. Take a warm shower or bath, download a relaxation/meditation app and take time to chill out.
Exercise. Reuben advises that exercise, together with healthy eating, is one of the best ways to combat stress. He said: “The extra oxygen, raised heart rate and endorphins you get from exercise really helps the whole body relax, and it also gives you a good appetite and results in a good sound sleep.”
For more stress-busting techniques, visit www.nhs.uk