To recognise April as being International Stress Awareness Month, our Mental Health First Aid Team have emphasised the importance of this topic during the month with some blog posts and local social events.

Stress and Self-awareness

Stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It typically arises when we find ourselves in circumstances that we perceive as beyond our ability to manage or control.  Of course, there are cases when this stress level is negotiable and we think that the situation is under our control, and this eustress has a facilitator mode. However, if the stressor is too intensive or our capabilities are not enough to control or fight with the situation then we can label it as distress. Generally, we can say that long-lasting or intensive stress can have serious impacts on our lives.

We could think that it is a natural thing to be aware of being stressed, but it is not that simple. For example: If someone grows up believing stress is normal and emotional instability is common in their home life, they’re likely to seek out similar situations in their relationships and workplaces. Even if it’s not healthy, we often gravitate towards what’s familiar because it feels safe.

Sometimes it is not easy to realise that what we feel – whether it’s long-lasting or intense stress – is maladaptive or that we are overwhelmed by it. Therefore, it is recommended to take some time regularly to conduct a self-check analysis, where there is an opportunity to observe our current psychological, physical, and behavioural states.

We can divide the symptoms of stress into 3 categories:

  • Psychical (like sleep problems, headache, fatigue, indigestion, etc.)
  • Psychological (anxiety, fear, irritability, impatience, depression, etc.)
  • Behavioural symptoms (withdrawal of social activities, changing eating habits, performance difficulties, procrastination, difficulty in relaxing, etc.)

Recognising these signs early allows you to take proactive steps to manage stress before it escalates and leads to potential stress-related issues or burnout. It’s important to remember that everyone experiences stress differently, so being mindful of your own unique signs and symptoms is crucial. Plus, it is also beneficial if you are open to observing and learning your loved ones’ behaviours when it comes to stress. By paying attention to these signals, you can develop strategies to cope with your stress effectively and be supportive of your family and friends.

Our Patterns

We are all different, and we each have our own ways of detecting stress; stressors impact us at varying levels, influencing our stress levels differently. We bring patterns from our families, schools and workplaces. We can learn from these environments, how people communicate about stress, how they express it, what kind of coping strategies they use, and all of these stimuli impact and influence us unconsciously. It is key that we start to learn to be conscious about these and practice self-reflection. After considering all the environmental influences we’ve absorbed since childhood, it’s difficult not to conclude that we should just adapt to what we’ve been given. Well, of course, there are some aspects of our lives when we are not in charge of making decisions and actions. But we are not there anymore. What we inherited is one thing, but how we process it and how we cope with the incoming stressors is something that we can influence, and we can make it better.

Stress Management

Once we realise we are stressed, we often unconsciously ask ourselves the following questions: Can we manage the situation? Is it within our control? Can we solve it? What solutions do we see? If we can’t manage it, how should we cope?

Fight vs Flight vs Freeze (and Fawn)

There is a general concept of how we and our bodies react when we perceive threats. The fight response activates a person to cope with perceived threats by taking action to eliminate the danger. It results in physical changes like increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, adrenaline rush, and tightened jaw. The flight response involves escaping the danger, seeking safety and distance from the source of the stress. This response triggers a cascade of physiological changes, including a surge in adrenaline, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, and tense muscles. The body readies itself for swift escape, prioritising survival above all else. In contrast, the freeze response involves a state of immobility, where the individual becomes momentarily paralysed in the face of danger. Rather than confront or flee, they may find themselves unable to act, as if caught in a state of suspended animation. This response is characterized by a decrease in heart rate and muscle tension, often accompanied by a sense of detachment or dissociation from the surrounding environment. Lately, research has identified a fourth stress reaction pattern: fawn. This is a little bit similar to the freeze response, but its core aspect is that we try to please and appease the needs of someone else, instead of prioritising our own well-being, so in the end we become more submissive in the situation.

Problem-Focused or Emotional-Focused

The problem-focused coping strategies aim to change or eliminate a stressor. When you employ a strategy aimed at directly addressing the stressor itself, you are engaging in problem-focused coping. For instance, devising plans, solving problems, or removing the stressor altogether are all forms of problem-focused coping.

Emotion-focused coping is when you try to deal with your emotional response to the stressor. If you are trying to reduce, eliminate, or simply tolerate your emotional response to a stressor, then you’re using emotion-focused coping. Examples include withdrawal, expressing anger and frustration, seeking emotional support, distracting oneself, engaging in rumination, and accepting resignation (acknowledging that the problem may persist).

For example, if we have a higher workload, prioritising our tasks or delegating them is a problem-focused solution, but acknowledging and celebrating small victories or milestones to stay motivated is more about emotion-focused coping.

Our Stress Container

The Stress Container model (below) illustrates how individuals manage everyday stresses based on their level of vulnerability. Those with low vulnerability possess larger containers, making them less susceptible to mental health issues. The size of the container can be due to a lot of factors from someone’s background, like the patterns that we have covered in previous blogs.

When the container overflows, individuals may experience mental and physical illness. This is a learning process to check and identify when our container is filling and we have to actively manage what is in there.

Workplace stress

Workplace stress is a common experience, often more pronounced during work hours. It’s essential to find ways to manage it effectively. Taking breaks throughout the day, whether by engaging in short activities or simply disconnecting for a while, can help alleviate stress. Establishing a morning routine before diving into work tasks can set a positive tone for the day. Additionally, setting boundaries and prioritising tasks can prevent burnout and promote a healthier work-life balance. Lastly, creating a shutdown routine to mentally transition out of work mode and unplugging from work-related communication channels during off-hours are crucial for maintaining overall well-being.

Our shields

To combat stress, we can implement protective factors like shields into our lives. These include maintaining physical activity, ensuring proper nutrition, prioritising restful sleep, nurturing hobbies, and practising mindfulness. Engaging in activities such as exercise and hobbies helps manage stress levels, while mindfulness techniques like mindful breathing and self-compassion promote mental well-being. By incorporating these practices into our daily routines, we can better navigate and alleviate stress in our lives.

In conclusion, Stress Awareness Month highlights the crucial importance of understanding and managing stress in our lives. Recognising our individual patterns and responses to stress, whether through problem-focused or emotion-focused coping strategies, allows for more effective stress management. By implementing protective factors like self-awareness, mindfulness, and healthy habits, we can build resilience and maintain overall well-being amidst life’s challenges.