I am soooo stressed …. I can’t think … I can’t keep doing this … I have had enough!
Does this sound familiar? Have you heard it … felt it … lived it?
Too often we hear friends and family talking about being stressed out, so it is time to take a stand and let stress out, rather than succumbing to feeling stressed out! Whilst stress is a fact of life, it seems that much time and energy is consumed by the negativity of this natural phenomenon. However, in its acute form, stress can be exciting or motivating, like the adrenaline rush experienced by the thrill of a physical activity, for example jumping the wake on skis behind a speedboat, riding a jet-ski, hot-air ballooning, or being a spectator at a tense match of your favourite sport. Unfortunately this level of excitement or positive stress, often referred to as eustress, is not sustainable indefinitely, and as a result, constant stress becomes a burden that all too often leads to distress. Added to this are the demands we place upon ourselves – expectations that we would never expect of another, so why do we beat ourselves up if we do not achieve the ‘greatness’ that our minds have conjured into a raft of high-performing and high-achieving expectations? Another stress trap arises when we lose sight of individuality, expecting ourselves to respond to difficult events with the blueprint of another: people respond differently to things – think of it as our uniqueness shining through. The way we respond to any situation depends on our unique combination of personality, thinking styles, and life experiences, so expecting ourselves to ‘be’ like another or to respond like another is unrealistic and potentially damaging to our mental health. More importantly, if we leave these expectations and demands unchecked, as the pressure and perceived ‘failure’ continues, they are likely to lead to more serious mental illnesses, such as anxiety and clinical depression, and yet if caught and treated early, stress and anxiety are very treatable.
We know that stress negatively affects the quality of life for many and this is reinforced by a recent study commissioned by the Australian Psychological Society. This study examined the status of wellbeing of Australian adults and found that twelve percent of adults experienced extremely severe stress¹. In addition, one in three was found to suffer depressive symptoms (with 10% of these being in the severe range) and one in four suffered anxiety symptoms (9% of whom fell within the severe range). The Australian results were found to be similar to studies conducted elsewhere in the western world, including the USA and UK. The concerning feature of these studies is that stress is on the increase, and if twelve percent of people are suffering severe stress, the numbers suffering stress significant enough to impact their quality of life is likely to be far greater. This survey found the primary sources of stress to be financial issues, personal health, family issues and the health of others, and 30% of people cited work-related stress. The impact of stress is wide-reaching; it affects our physical and emotional health, and often shows up in maladaptive behaviours if not treated and taken seriously.
Perhaps the most important element of the stress scenario is the surreptitious build up of negative stress over time. I refer to this as ‘over the shoulder’ stress because it tends to build up without us noticing, and seemingly all of a sudden your world seems to come crashing down around you. To this end there are two key elements to understand in the stress trap.
The first is about your belief systems, and this part of your response style is largely embedded in your early years. In essence, this relates to how you think about things, and your individual thinking style will reflect your perceptions of events and subsequently how ‘stressed’ you become. I will discuss this in more depth in a later column when I focus more on thought processing.
The second element relates to the build-up stress, and this is key to understanding the pervasiveness and prevalence of stress. Life is full of ‘ups and downs’, which I refer to as ‘big s’ and ‘little s’ stresses, many of which we are able to manage. These stressors occur each day, and build into what I refer to as our ‘stress hill’. It is when the stresses of ‘stress hill’ build to the point where our coping resources are exhausted, that we reach emotional exhaustion – or meltdown. At this point stress hill becomes an erupting stress volcano! What makes it difficult to monitor our stress level is the fact that stress often creeps up slowly without us noticing. To compensate we make an additional effort with our daily tasks, which might be so small that we don’t notice its impact – initially. Over time, however, things tend to change. As pressure builds our ability to manage it begins to diminish, and it is only after time has passed that we notice things have changed, often significantly; we don’t feel the way we used to, we experience more headaches and our body generally aches more from increased tension, our mood fluctuates, we forget things or mess things up way more that we used to, and we feel cranky with everyone and everything much of the time! Then we begin to feel freaked out – WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME?
Has this happened to you?
It is a natural thing to seek to realize our potential, and to do this we need to be able to manage competing priorities in order to live and work productively, reinforcing our sense of value and contribution to our family, workplace and community. This is an essential element in maintaining a healthy self esteem, which is fundamental to our mental health.
So what is it that gets in the way?
So how do we deal with excessive stress? Clearly something needs to change! Firstly, we need to look at what has been changing in our world, and given that these changes are likely to have been gradual, it may take some reflection to identify how, where and when things began to change for the worse. We need to undertake a personal analysis or ‘self audit’ – writing a daily journal can be useful here. Look at the commitments, activities, and routines in your day or week, and note what you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy much at all, consider what you used to enjoy, and ask yourself whether you are still doing it, if not, why not, or why you don’t enjoy it any more. Look at what is different from before you were aware of this stress build-up, and consider what you might need to change to get back to a place of equilibrium.
This is a crucial step for if you do not, will not or cannot look out for you, who will?
It is important to ensure that you have things in your week that you enjoy and can look forward to – whether it is your time at the gym, coffee with friends, or a movie with the family, make sure you have some ‘fun’ things factored in to your week. The additional benefit of enjoyable activities is that it guarantees that you will have some relaxation time in your week, and regular relaxation is essential for managing stress and enhancing resilience.
Wishing you good health and happiness.