Stress – an everyday problem
Stress is the natural way your body responds to a demand or threat. When you feel threatened in some way, your body is designed to respond through physiological changes – your body’s way to protect you – until the threat has passed.
Once upon a time in caveman days, the threat may have been a sabre-toothed tiger suddenly appearing. The stress response roused the body for the emergency, increasing strength and stamina, speeding the reaction time to literally save your life.
In modern times, the triggers of stress may have changed, but the inbuilt stress response remains. When stress is within your comfort zone, it can be a help – keeping you focused and alert. The stress response can still save your life – for example, enabling the sudden reaction to slam on brakes to avoid an accident. Stress can also help people rise to meet challenges – sharpening concentration during exams, keeping you alert through a work presentation.
But when stress beyond your comfort zone is sustained, stress stops being helpful. It can start causing major damage to your mind and body.
The stress response
When you need (or think you need) to defend yourself or run away from danger, your body responds to protect you. The nervous system prompts a flood of stress hormones to be released, including adrenaline and cortisol, which ready the body for emergency action.
The adrenaline makes your heart pounds faster, make blood pressure rise, breath quicken and boosts energy. Cortisol increases glucose levels in the bloodstream, and enhances your brain’s ability to use that glucose. Cortisol also stops bodily functions that would slow the body’s emergency response. The digestive system is suppressed, and immune and reproductive system slowed. Regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear are set off, with senses sharpening, focus enhanced, and reaction time faster.
This is known as the “fight or flight” (or mobilisation) response – preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand – your body’s way of protecting you.
If mobilisation fails, the body may “freeze” instead, leaving you unable to move. In extreme, life-threatening situations, you may even lose consciousness, enabling you to survive high levels of physical pain.
When stress becomes chronic
The body isn’t always able to properly distinguish between a daily stressor and a life-threatening event. When you’re stressed over some daily events, your body may still react as if you’re facing a life-or-death situation.
When we think of stress in life, we usually think of it as being negative – a looming bill, an exhausting work schedule or an argument. However, anything that puts high demands on a person can be stressful. Positive events can also be stressful – such as getting married, buying a house, or being promoted. Not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated – worrying about something that may or may not happen, or have pessimistic thoughts.
Repeatedly experiencing this fight-or-flight response in daily life can lead to serious health problems.
Chronic stress can disrupt nearly every system in the body. The immune system may shut down. Digestive and reproductive systems may be upset. Blood pressure may rise, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. The impacts can leave the body vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.
There are a number of common warning signs and symptoms you may notice in yourself – a warning that you may be to close to stress overload.
Being unable to concentrate or remember things are often experienced with chronic stress, with constant worry, or seeing only the negative in situations. Feeling general unhappiness, moodiness, irritability, anger or a feeling of overwhelm are also emotional symptoms of stress overload.
Physically, stress overload may be felt with aches and pains, diarrhea/constipation, nausea, rapid heartbeat, or even frequent colds or flu.
Some find that their eating or sleeping patterns change. Nervous habits (such as nail-biting) may appear, or a reliance on alcohol/cigarettes/drugs to relax.
Stress in Australia
Australian Psychological Society (APS) Survey on Stress and Wellbeing 2015 shows that Australians are faring worse than they were 5 years ago when the survey began. Lower levels of wellbeing and workplace wellbeing were reported with higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety symptoms.
35% of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives. Younger people (18-25) report lower levels of wellbeing than older Australians.
“Financial issues are rated as the top cause of stress over the five years, while also of concern is the increase in the number of people turning to gambling to manage stress (now one in five) growing from 13% in 2011 to 19% in 2015.” The top causes of stress in Australia over the five years are personal finances, family issues, personal health, trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle and issues with the health of another .
The most popular way of managing stress in Australia is watching television/movies (85%). Other relievers include focusing on the positives, spending time with friends and/or family, listening to music, and reading.
A relatively new source of stress is Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) – one in two teens and one in four adults was found to experience FoMO in the 2015 Survey. “Teens connected to social media more frequently are significantly more likely to experience aspects of FoMO”. FoMO stresses include “It is important that I understand my friends in-jokes, fearing their friends are having more rewarding experiences than them, worrying when they find out their friends are having fun without them, and being bothered when they miss out on planned get-togethers.”
Australians are most likely to seek help from family and friends. Only 15% seek help from a psychologist or other mental health specialist (e.g. psychiatrist).
Coping with stress
While many Australians rely on relaxing in front of the television as a way to relieve stress, it’s widely considered to not be the best method.
Regular exercise is a great way to manage stress, as well as giving yourself time to relax each day. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, breathing, meditation or mindfulness tracks can also help.
Try to spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself, staying away from people who cause stress as much as possible.
Keeping healthy by eating well is also key to managing stress. A good sleep routine is essential. If you have difficulty falling asleep, do something calm and relaxing before you go to bed.
Understand what situations make you feel stressed. Avoiding situations that cause stress (if possible) or preparing for known stressful events in advance can lessen the impact or reduce the stressful time.
Try to do happy things every day. It’s important to have balance in your life, make time to have some fun !
How Bowen Technique can help stress
Bowen Therapy is another method that can help with managing the body’s stress response.
Gentle Bowen moves help to restoring balance in the autonomic nervous system, prompting a shift from the stressed “fight or flight” state, to “rest and repair” dominance. It’s not uncommon for clients to fall into a state of deep relaxation during treatment, many even fall asleep.
One of my regular clients spoke of her relaxation during treatment – “even just a few moves, and my whole body just lets go…”
Bowen Therapy doesn’t just take the body out of it’s flight or flight state. It can also help warning signs and symptoms of overload, and the impacts on the body caused by chronic stress. Breathing, posture, digestion and aches/pains can all be helped through a de-stressing Bowen treatment.
When stress has become chronic, a range of help is needed to bring back overall balance. Bowen is an ideal therapy to include in the overall mix of help for chronic stress.