Stress can be defined as the body’s response to any physical or emotional change in life – real or perceived. Many of us consider that stress is the feeling that we are under too much pressure and are unable to cope. In reality we all need a certain amount of stress in order to motivate us to get up every morning and get through our day – otherwise we would achieve very little! Some stress can be considered a positive thing as this is what drives us when we are facing a challenge e.g. studying for an exam or if we need to perform or speak in public – that nervous jittery feeling is the body’s stress response working in a positive way for us, stimulating us to do our best to prepare for the occasion. We all deal with stress in different ways and one person may sail through a life event that another person might consider a major stressor.
When we feel that we are under more stress than we are able to cope with the mind becomes overwhelmed and this can manifest itself in physical symptoms such as headaches, tension in the neck and shoulders, disrupted sleep and digestive problems while some of the psychological symptoms of stress can include anxiety, low mood, irritability, poor concentration and feeling disorganised. It also works the other way – if we are ill or have a physical injury, the discomfort of this can cause us stress which may manifest itself in psychological symptoms.
Whats going on during the stress response at a physiological level is what is known as the fight or flight response – our bodies have evolved with this response to stress built in. During the fight or flight response our levels of adrenaline in our bloodstream become heightened. This causes our heart rate and breathing to increase, our muscles tense and our metabolism and blood pressure speed up. Blood is diverted away from the extremities of the body and the digestive system (causing the hands and feet to feel cold and digestion to be disturbed) to larger muscle groups. The body prepares to run for its life from the cause of the stress – which may have been vital for survival during the Stone Age when being confronted by a fierce growling animal – maybe not so useful in an open plan office in the twenty-first century when trying to meet the monthly deadline.
Over time if the stress levels are regularly increased (due to a particularly stressful life event, for example) the raised adrenaline and other hormone levels can begin to affect the healthy functioning of our bodies. Almost every system in our body can be damaged by stress and we are particularly at risk during times of persistent unrelenting stress (such as bereavement, relationship breakdown, redundancy, financial difficulties). If the stress response remains at a heightened level, the chance of stress-related disease becomes increased.
Geraldine is available for appointments in Sandyford Wellness Centre, Sandyford Office Park (opposite Sandyford Luas stop), Dublin 18 or online on a secure, encrypted platform.