We all get stressed – good, bad or indifferent we will all experience varying levels of stress during any course of a day or week. Not all stress is bad – we need an amount of stress to get us up in the morning or what’s the point? But sometimes it gets a bit OTT and starts to cause problems.
Best place to start – and the main focus of this post – is what actually is stress?
Stress is a term that gets thrown around a lot but it’s not something that we necessarily fully understand. There are so many different definitions of stress as well that it can be hard to pin point. I personally find this one here from Dr Shiel (2016) the best one to fully cover all elements of the stress continuum:
‘In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension’
Let’s unpick this together. We are purely looking at the medical and biological definition here. Out of interest I googled ‘what is stress’ to see how many definitions would arise from this simple search. Interestingly, a lot of these looked at how stress made you feel but didn’t necessarily touch on the medical or biological explanation for this. Please don’t take this to mean that medicine and physical health is the be all and end all – it’s absolutely not. However, often medical definitions can be quite useful in helping us explain phenomenons.
We can also see that it’s a physical, mental or emotional factor. That’s right it’s not just a feeling that you get (and partly why I don’t enjoy the definitions that focus solely on the feeling)! This helps us understand that we can get physical symptoms associated with stress so please don’t be offended if your Physio starts asking you if you are under any stress at present or if you have anything upcoming in the near future that may be impacting your subconscious. Commonly, stress presents in the neck, shoulders and jaw but equally I’ve seen people with foot pain that settles when stress is addressed. We know that stress can raise emotions in us – anger, fear, worry to name a few – and it’s interesting how family and friends describe their loved ones during periods of stress. Have a think about your own life at the minute. Do you know someone who is going through some stress just now? Has their personality changed a little over this time? How would you describe them to your closest friends over a coffee when they ask how they are? And we also know that there is a mental component – you can’t concentrate as well, your recall and memory aren’t as great, people describe a sensation of fogginess. This is all completely normal when we’re under periods of stress.
Finally, this definition tells us that stress presents as bodily and mental tension. I hear that!!! Think about a time when you’ve been stressed. How would you describe yourselfduring that time? Is it the same way that you described your friend or family member up above? I know for me tense is the right word. Not only do my muscles feel tight and my joints feel stiff (‘I’ve just not got the same range of movement in my squat that I did’) but I feel constantly on edge and at high alert. A pin dropping would be enough for me to whip around ready to protect myself. Why is that though?
Well, stress invokes the fight or flight response. Time to get technical and complicated! Fight or flight is controlled by our endocrine and neurological systems. Hormones, in particular adrenaline and noradrenaline, surge through our body in preparation for rapid muscular activity. We find our heart rate increasing (get more blood to my muscles please), our breathing becomes shallower (I need as much air as I can possibly get so I’ll try breathe faster), our blood pressure goes up (GET THAT BLOOD TO MY MUSCLES PLEASE!) and we start to slow down – or stop – our digestion (I totally don’t need you to break down that chocolate I just ate). Attention is directed away from glands responsible for tear production, our pupils dilate and we don’t have as much peripheral vision (I need to see as much as I possibly can right in front of me right now thank you very much). We also don’t need our bladder to be taking up any energy so it will relax (seen the shows where people end up weeing themselves out of fright? That’s why!) and there’s no way in hell I need a man or lady hard on right now so forget about sexual function (no time to reproduce – we need to be safe first!). As these hormones surge through us, we find our musculoskeletal system is the focus. We are either going to run like hell and get as far away as we possibly can (needing lots of muscular energy) or we’re going to stand our ground, protect what’s ours and fight like hell (needing lots of muscular energy). In preparation for either of these eventualities we may find we start shaking as this system gets ready to jump in to action.
All of this happens in a split second and once the threat is removed we ordinarily are able to to take a deep, calming breath and allow our parasympathetic nervous system to come back in to play contracting our bladder again (thank goodness we’re not constantly peeing ourselves now), giving us back our peripheral vision and tears (this is partly why after a frightful event people can burst in to tears), allowing us to start getting erections again (hallelujah!) and enabling our musculoskeletal system to relax giving us back our range of movement (namaste).
But what could possibly be perceived as such a threat that we could invoke a flight or fright response? Don’t get me wrong – the above description is drastic – but when we are under stress we are operating at a level of the above because we perceive whatever this stressor is to be a threat to us. Our natural instincts of survival come in to play (thanks to our ancestors for supporting the species to this point) – and we begin to revert slightly to primordial self.
Remember at the start I said stress could be caused by negative and positive things? Before going any further, take a bit of time just now to jot down a few things that have happened recently and how that caused you stress. This could be things like getting ready for a night out, moving to a new house, buying a new car, going on holiday, being given a new task at work that you don’t think you’re equipped for, being in an accident, suffering a recent bereavement – the list goes on. Have a think about how you felt, what happened physically and how you feel now that you’ve come out the other end. Spend some time on this and put thought behind it.
Often, we find that stress can be caused by external and internal factors. The external factors are things like your environment, relationships and all of the things that you face during an average, normal day. The internal factors that can impact on stress are how well you are prepared to deal with stressors: things like your nutritional status, sleep hygiene, emotional wellbeing and physical fitness all play a part in how you handle stress and stressful events. We will talk about how to manage these things in the next instalment.
With some ailments, we can be more susceptible to picking them up due to our age (things like arthritis), whether we are male or female (remember frozen shoulders?) and what our ethnicity is (think sickle cell anaemia as an example). Stress however doesn’t discriminate the same way these things do. It can pick on anyone of any age, ability, sexuality, gender, religion or ethnicity. It is highly individualised and therefore very difficult to compare to someone else’s stress. Things that cause one person’s stress may be actually quite relaxing to another person and vice versa.
And all of this is why stress can be so difficult to manage and why it tends to need input from many different people to help you go through the stress, beat down its walls and come out the other side.
Here’s to stress right! We will touch on things like cortisol and dopamine, stress management and how this all impacts on your recovery over the rest of the month but for now I’d really love it if you would get up, stretch, think of something that’s happened recently that’s made you smile or laugh out loud. Relive that moment and feel the joy that it brought you. Now, if you’re with someone else turn to them, if not pick up your phone and pick whoever you like to ask them how they are. Make someone’s day!
Until next time x