Stress is a really interesting topic to me as I consider the hugely challenging circumstances currently being experienced all over the world during the Covid-19 lockdown.
The aim of this blogpost isn’t to give you 10 top tips to short-term stress relief. As it’s mental health awareness week, you will find this kind of material in every other post you scroll through. Rather, the point of this post is to give you a deeper physiological understanding of stress, and to point you in the right direction in implementing long-term changes so that you are in a better position to manage stress for the long haul. I’m coming at this as someone who treats bodily stress through massage therapy, and as a life, career and wellbeing coach whose clients are coping with various stressors (more about what this is later). I would also really like to thank Jaromir Myslivecek from the Institute of Physiology of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic for his research into this topic. His article The Basis of the Stress Reaction has provided the main scientific foundation for this blogpost.
What is stress, from a physiological point of view?
Understanding what stress is helps us to navigate it, deal with it, give it its right place in our lives. So what is stress? There are many definitions for stress, as Myslivecek alludes to. In his view, ‘stress is the body’s response to strain (inner or outer). This response is characterised by stress response elements that could have both positive/beneficial impact (eustress) or a negative/detrimental impact (distress) on the body’. I will pick up on this more because human beings (as with all living creatures) have been designed to cope with stress. Myslivecek describes stress as ‘the body’s response to strain (inner or outer). It is not a nervous tension, as it can occur in lower animals and even in plants, which have no nervous system. Stress is not a reaction to a specific thing. It should be considered a reaction that helps the organism cope with different situations and, therefore, stress cannot and should not be avoided.’
Let’s look briefly into human histology – bone ossification (growth) in particular, since it will explore Myslivecek’s point more. Our bones grow under enormous stress. Is it necessary? Yes, it is – as the pressure is part of the process of the strengthening of bone tissue. Our bones never stop growing since bone cells in the body continue to reproduce to replace those that die. Broken bones knit together and heal by growth. As we get older, our bones are still renewing, but the rate of deterioration of cells in the bone may be faster than the renewal process. This kind of stress is eustress.
So… our bodies were designed and built to handle eustress. From the moment we were conceived, our bodies have remained in some form of eustress – the stress of growing. They will continue to handle growth stresses until the moment we take our last breath. Where we are physically, emotionally, socially and psychologically distressed for prolonged periods of time – well, this is something that our bodies are not naturally designed or built for.
We can think about it this way: Eustress leads to positive outcomes and impacts, in so far as the end goal is not a negative one, or does not transform into a distress. Distress leads to negative outcomes and impacts. In BOTH of these, we will find: STRESS. This is enough overview with which to begin from. I welcome medical experts to comment or even correct me if needed.
Is it manageable?
Stress is an overused word these days, and I believe that is partly because of a genuine lack of understanding of the two different types of stresses, and how we ought to relate to them. Stress can also increase or decrease to different degrees as well. It’s very easy to believe that our stress is one thing, but it is actually another. There is quite a lot of chaos and confusion if the stress is distressful or if the stress is chronic (no longer manageable). Only eustress will recollect you, bring you some peace, order and direction in the context of stress itself. Stress is manageable, and even when you think you’ve lost all control, not all hope is lost.
To navigate through the stress, to put together your action plan for managing it, and to see the light at the end of the tunnel, two of the most important things to look at are the cause of the stresses, and the impact the stress is having on you.
How can the cause (aka the stressor) be identified?
‘Stressors can influence the organism acutely (acute/single stress) or chronically (chronic/repeated/long-lasting stress)’ says Myslivecek. ‘The repeated influence of a stressor can have great significance in the context of allostasis, which is defined as the ability to maintain stability through change’. As a change management practitioner, you can imagine my delight in the science of this statement… but that’s a topic for another day!
To determine the cause of the stress (the stressor / the stimulus / the trigger), I run a wellbeing self-assessment with my clients. This report is an analysis of the eight wellbeing keys to the right. I help my clients come to crystal clarity on what their stressors are, so that the root can either be nourished or dug up. Nourished when the stressor leads to eustress. Dug up (I’m sorry, this is usually quite a painful process) when the stressor leads to distress. Although Myslivecek says that ‘in humans, the majority of stressors are psychological and social’, the other areas of wellbeing could be greatly impacted. So I offer this assessment as part of a wellbeing coaching package, OR people are welcome to simply complete a questionnaire then purchase their unique report from me for only £19.95 to see their results.
You can take your wellbeing self-assessment here: http://bit.ly/ToC-WSA.
You could also complete this explorative task on your own and without any aid. All you need to do is look at each wellbeing key, and write down what is discomforting, not quite at right balance, stress-invoking or is unsatisfactory to you in your life.
Here’s an example exploring the social key: a) Tension in the relationship between my boss and myself. b) My kids are complaining that I am not spending enough time with them. c) At the moment I feel like I have so few friends. d) Business networking gives me the sweats. Which ones are distressful? Which ones are a form of eustress? Which ones are acute and which ones are chronic? What degree of importance on a scale of 1-10 do you give them (1 being low and 10 being high)?
Then repeat this process for the other 7 wellbeing keys, and see what comes up for you.
How can the impact of that stress be measured? Indeed, what is the impact of all that stress?
Taking the wellbeing self-assessment is only part one of this stress-identification journey. The second part of the journey is nailing down the exact impact the stress is having on you. For example, you may be distressed by your next door neighbour who is repeatedly playing their music on full blast until 5am keeping you awake. Not only is the outcome of physical tiredness going to have an impact on you, but you could also be greatly impacted by short-temperedness in your family relationships, or an unkept living environment, or poor performance in your workplace. To help clients determine this, I give my clients a Stress Impact Assessment (again, based on the above wellbeing keys) to complete.
A comprehensive Stress Impact Assessment is a part of my wellbeing coaching package, OR people are welcome to attend one of my Radical Self-Care Workshops to go through a mini version (4 wellbeing keys) of this Stress Impact Assessment. You’ll find all my upcoming workshops on Radical Self-Care on my Eventbrite channel.
If you wanted to assess the impacts of your stress without my aid, you could draw a 3 columned table. The first column contains your stressor. The second column contains at least 1 (but likely to be multiple) outcomes of the stressor. The third column contains the impact. This is a very important piece of work, because this will actually help you determine which stresses need addressing.
Once you understand your stressors and the impacts of that stress, you can really begin to map out a plan for stress management. Otherwise, you’re just trialling and erring without really understanding your fight-fright-flight capacities. You could be throwing away a lot of money for something that you stumble onto by accident. Approaching your stress management systematically will help combat the chaos that comes with negative stress.
Why work with a Wellbeing Coach
Wellbeing coaches who have a good overall knowledge of the body (I would recommend level 3 qualifications in bodywork as a minimum since they show some level of competency in the hormonal and nervous systems). They will also have a greater understanding of healthy eating, psychology, in fact – a good holistic understanding of all 8 wellbeing keys altogether. Such a coach would be in a good position to support you in managing your stress. They can also help you in your stress prevention strategy. They:
- Take into account your physical wellbeing, through understanding and analysis of symptoms showing up as outcomes resulting from chronic stress or distress.
- Will help you look at your life as a whole, as no one area of your life can be isolated unto itself.
- Work with you to implement stress management strategy – forming action plans to prevention systems.
- Look at your dietary intake, and can recommend dietary plans (but not subscribe vitamins or supplements unless they are a registered nutritionist).
- Go through, in overview style, your financial as well as your environmental and occupational situations.
- Recommend physical exercises and signpost you to helpful resources.
- Think outside the box to help you with your career progression and development, without losing or selling your soul!
Of course, there is so much more that could be said about this topic, even from a physiological perspective – but I hope I have achieved what I set out to according to the second paragraph. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the above material, or would like to embark on a bespoke 3 month wellbeing coaching programme with me. I offer a free 30 minute consultation call.
I’m preparing to open up a 1 year Career & Wellbeing programme to 6 keen hi-potential job hunters or career chasers to escalate their performance as individuals, and to work as a team to achieve their unique life & career visions. Do you want to be someone who receives unlimited access and support from me, who will be championing you throughout your journey of growth and self-actualisation?