Skip to content

Stress

Stress doesn’t have to control our lives. We can improve our knowledge about stress, learn how to reduce stress, and increase our resources to become more resilient when stress is unavoidable. This page contains information about stress, how to manage stress, and where to get further help.

What is Stress?

Stress is your brain and body’s natural way of responding to any kind of pressure, demand or threat. These pressures are not only about what may be happening around us, but often also may be about the demands we place on ourselves. Experiencing stress is part of being alive – small amounts of stress help increase our alertness and energy to meet challenging situations. However, stress is only good when it doesn’t last long. If stress lasts a long time or overwhelms our ability to cope, it can have a negative effects.

This is beautifully captured in the diagram, below. When performance demands are too ‘Low’, we become bored and inactive. But, as performance demands increase, our physiology ‘kicks in’ and we start to feel alert and focused. We are motivated and we feel capable of dealing with the demands of life. However, when performance demands become too ‘High’ – or we have become exposed to too many demands over a prolonged period – we become fatigued and experience a cascade of stress-hormones that can wear us down. This can lead to problems with health, relationships, work or can affect our general enjoyment of life. Often, prolonged stress can lead to burnout, serious illness or mental health problems.

yerkes dodson stress performance curve

The important thing to understand about this graph is that if we are to reduce Stress, we need to increase your awareness of where we are on the Stress Curve so that we can take appropriate steps to reduce it. It is probably obvious, but we need different strategies to move from ‘inactive’ to the Optimal Zone than we need when we are ‘fatigued’. However, what people often do not realize is that the further into the RED ZONE you get – the more strategies that you need to use and the longer they will take to get you back into the Optimal Zone. Thus, learning to be more aware of your stress levels is important, as is having a sound grasp of rapid ways to reduce your stress.

Types of Stress

Acute Stress

These are little stressors that are short-lived but their effects add to ongoing stressors that occur throughout the day or week. Managing acute stressors can be thrilling and exciting in small doses (eg, a deadline you are rushing to meet), but too much acute stress can become exhausting. Eg, a deadline you are rushing to meet, an argument, a minor car accident that dented the side of your vehicle, the loss of an important contract, your child’s occasional problems at school etc… Because acute is short term, it doesn’t have enough time to trigger the more serious physiological / psychological problems associated with more long-term stress. Common symptoms of too much acute stress are: Muscular tension / knots, irritability, stomach upset, anxiety, or depression.

Episodic Stress

Episodic stress occurs in people who have many frequent acute stressors in their lives – It’s stress from having too many things on, being chronically disorganized, or having too many self-inflicted demands (‘unrelenting standards’). Some people procrastinate about doing important things, and others are disorganized. Both of these add unnecessary chaos to routines because you feel like you are always ‘chasing your tail’. On the other hand, people with ‘unrelenting standards ‘ feel as though ‘nothing is ever good enough’ – so they try harder. The worst aspect of Episodic stress is that people get used to it (eg, ‘it’s just the way my life is’) and forget it’s there. But it is a source of stress, and it wears people wear down – physically, psychologically, and emotionally. This type of stress can lead to tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain, panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and even cardiac problems.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is stress that occurs over long periods of time. Usually people cannot see a way out their situation. This type of stress can drastically increase illness, ageing and can lead to depression, hopelessness, suicide, violence, cardiac problems, stroke, and even cancer.  Chronic stress may stem from traumatic early childhood experiences where crucial needs were not met. This becomes internalized and remains forever painful and present in some form, affecting people’s ability to relate to others in the present. For instance, some stressful experiences can profoundly affect a person’s beliefs and their personality. A view of the world, or a belief system, may be created that causes unending stress for the individual (eg, beliefs such as: ‘people can’t be trusted’, ‘the world is a threatening place’, ‘there’s something wrong with me’, or ‘I must be perfect at all times’). When personality or deep-seated convictions and beliefs are present they cloud everything you do. Recovery requires active self-examination, often with professional help.

Eustress

Eustress is ‘positive stress’ – stress that is beneficial. For instance, exercise can be considered a stressful activity for your body, but one that has many positive benefits. (Other examples include: Having a child, buying a house, starting a new job.). Eustress is not defined by the type of stress, but rather how one perceives that stressor (e.g. a negative threat versus a positive challenge) and can include relating to a stressor with a sense of hope or meaning. Eustress has been found to related to life satisfaction and well-being.

Examples of Stress

  • Relationship breakdown
  • Relocating cities
  • Unemployment
  • Excessive job demands
  • Falling behind due to procrastination
  • Divorce
  • Death of a loved one
  • Injury
  • Marriage

  • Bullying
  • Chronic Illness
  • Chronic Pain
  • Interpersonal Conflict
  • Financial problems
  • Having a new child
  • Job insecurity
  • Poor nutrition
  • Poor Sleep

Examples of Stress

  • Relationship breakdown
  • Relocating cities
  • Unemployment
  • Excessive job demands
  • Falling behind due to procrastination
  • Divorce
  • Death of a loved one
  • Injury
  • Marriage
  • Bullying
  • Chronic Illness
  • Chronic Pain
  • Interpersonal Conflict
  • Financial problems
  • Having a new child
  • Job insecurity
  • Poor nutrition
  • Poor Sleep

Coping with Stress:

Strategies for dealing with stress fall into two broad categories: Emotion-Focused Strategies and Problem-Focused Strategies. See if you can determine which strategies you typically use and learn how to pick the best strategy for the type of stress you are experiencing.

Emotion-focused coping:

Emotion-focused coping strategies are useful when the source of stress is unchangeable. Emotion-focused coping involves trying to change the negative emotional responses associated with stress. Healthy and workable strategies can include: humour, distracting, reappraising, processing, and accepting. In contrast, people who use ‘avoidance’ strategies’ (such as: denial, over-eating, withdrawing, excessive gaming or internet use, drinking, or drugs) to deal with the difficult emotions associated with stress, often report poorer health outcomes.  Emotion-focused coping strategies are generally less effective than problem-focused strategies when the problem can actually be solved – especially when the negative side effects delay the person dealing with the problem. IF you are going to engage in emotion-focused coping, try to pick strategies that do not make things worse (See Crisis Survival Skills – coming soon).

Problem-focused coping:

Problem-focused is a proactive style of coping that focuses on removing or eliminating the source of stress. This can be an effective method of coping when it is practical and it is possible (that is, when the stressor is changeable or modifiable).  This involves individuals’ prioritizing and taking control of the relationship between them and the stressor. Problem-focused strategies include: information seeking, learning new skills, prioritizing, problem-solving, and developing strategies to eliminate the source of the stress. An example of ineffective problem-focused coping trying to apply problem-solving to manage the stress and emotions associated with the death of a family member. Problem solving is not the most effective strategy since the stressor (the death of a loved one) cannot be adjusted or modified. Use emotion-focused coping instead (above).

 

How to manage stress?

Remember that stress is a normal process, we can’t completely ever permanently get rid of all stress, and that a moderate degree of stress actually helps us perform at our optimal. Although we can’t get rid of all stress, thankfully, there are many things we can do to reduce stress:

Exercise – Exercise can get you out of your mind and into your body. Exercise has many benefits from reducing physical tension to boosting endorphins (natural painkillers), to improving your mood, and even improving the quality of sleep (e.g., increased delta-wave sleep)! Any exercise is better than none, and if you do it with others you can kill two birds with one stone and get a dose of social connection (which has been shown to reduce stress). Exercising in nature also deserves a special mention because it can reduce stress associated with rumination and worry – A 2015 study comparing people who exercised in the city every day for a week vs. people who exercised in Nature, found that the people who walked in Nature experienced a significant reduction in pre-frontal cortex activity (the part of the brain involved in rumination, which leads to depression)!

Physical Activity – Yoga, Exercise, Sex, are all examples of physical activity that can reduce stress by releasing physical tension, getting you out of your mind and into your body, boosting endorphins and opiates, improving your mood, and strengthening your immune system.

Sleep – Getting a good night’s sleep is absolutely essential for dealing with prolonged stress. Poor sleep affects memory and concentration, causes fatigue, and increases susceptibility to almost all psychological problems. Staying awake for 24 hours leads to a reduced hand-to-eye coordination that is similar to having a blood alcohol content of 0.1. Poor sleep also leads to irritability and rumination (stuck on thoughts), which is closely linked to depression.  Sleep deprivation erodes your immune system and has been found to relate to an increased risk of cancer in shift-workers. Learn more about sleep and how to get a good night’s sleep here.

Problem-solve – Write a list of every single thing making you stressed. Prioritise this list into things that you can can’t do at this point in time (e.g., you can’t buy the milk because it’s 3am) and the things that you CAN do something about right NOW!

Take Action (vs Procrastinate) – Procrastination (putting things off) increases stress. Procrastination make things worse. If you are procrastinating because you are having chronic problems with motivation – realise that stressed and low motivation can be symptoms of depression. Why not seek help from a friend or better, a psychologist? Alternatively, often it can help to reconnect with what is truly important about doing the thing that you are putting off – read more about this here.

Take regular breaks – Breaks don’t need to be long, but they need to engage your body (the 5 Senses). Even taking a walk in Nature has been shown to reduce stress. Opening up a New Tab on a web browser is NOT a break if you’ve been sitting at a computer for hours!

Self-Care – Taking time out to nurture yourself actually allows you can keep going! Baths, time with quality friends, eating nice food, trying new experiences, having meaningful experiences, or just turning your phone off and having some “you time”, will all help rejuvenate your mind by nurturing yourself and bringing you back the ‘left side’ of the stress graph at the top of this page. Learning how to soothe yourself with the breath is a prime example of self-care that reduces stress.

Educate – Learn about how you can respond to and better manage stress. Find out ways to improve your mental and emotional well-being, e.g. make use of my self-help resources. All articles provide the latest research and thinking on many topics related to reducing stress, improving your thinking, your mood, and your relationships with yourself and others.

Social Support – Social support has been shown time and time again to reduce stress. Seek out the support of a close family member or friend. Remember however, that although it can help to talk about your problems, you don’t need to necessarily ‘dwell’ on them with your friend. Also use this time and their company as a way of doing something different – something enjoyable and meaningful other than focussing on your stress.

Hugging, touch & pets – Hugging and physical contact is very effective in lowering levels of stress hormones. Hugging and warmth reduces cortisol and other stress hormones. The longer the hug, the greater the release of oxytocin! There are also ways to be soothed and to soothe yourself using gentle touch – including massage, light pressure, skin-to-skin contact, or being affectionate with pets. You can read more about these benefits in this research paper.

Pleasant Events – Doing things that you find meaningful, rewarding and distracting is a great way to take you focus of your stress. These things do not have to be huge – rather, things that you enjoy doing and possibly haven’t done for a while. If you need some help with coming up with things – and I have found that most people do need help with this – here’s a list of over 300 things that researchers have found that people like to do. You might notice that you have not done some of these in quite some time…

Mindfulness & Meditation – Mindfulness and Meditation are some of the best skills you can learn and do to combat stress. Why? Because Mindfulness can short-circuit the body’s stress response. Mindfulness has health benefits that go beyond simple stress-reduction. However, Mindfulness skills are pretty misunderstood by pretty much every one – For many, Mindfulness conjures images of Buddhist monks, or the idea of ‘stopping your thinking’ – Mindfulness is not meditation, and meditation is not trying to ‘not have any thoughts’. If you are confused about what mindfulness is, then you owe it to yourself to learn more about what Mindfulness actually is.

Unhooking from unhelpful thinking – A related process to mindfulness is being able to unhook from unhelpful thinking. This includes: thoughts, images, predictions, judgements, ‘stories’ that we tell ourselves about ourselves or the world, and memories. Being able to notice the contents of your mind from the perspective of an Observer, can help you to realise that you are not your mind, or its thoughts; thoughts are just mental events that come and go – just like you are not your heart or the ‘beats’ that your heart makes. Being able to ‘have’ thoughts without reacting to them is hugely important if you are interested in being able to care for yourself when stress. To read more about how to do this, read my article about how to work with thoughts.

Self-Compassion – Quite often when stressed we are stuck oscillating between our Brain’s Threat and Drive Systems. If we are being motivated by Threat, we are doing things in order to protect ourselves – to avoid some kind of unwanted consequence. For example, being motivated to avoid shame or self-criticism in the case of failure. Threat may motivate us to take action, via stimulating our Drive System where we become overly achievement-focused, competitive, and fixated on success. When our Drive is motivated by Threat, we are overcompensating. Worse, if we fail or stumble in any way, this will trigger the underlying threat of self-criticism, and so a viscous cycle ensues. What is the solution? Being able to approach Threat & Drive with Self-compassion (support, kindness, encouragement)! However, most people have a really unhelpful and incorrect understanding about what this is (and isn’t) which leads to a lot of myths, and fears, and resistances, and so it is overlooked (and nothing changes…). You can beak this cycle by learning more about what Self-Compassion is (here), and by learning about your Brain’s 3 Emotion Regulation Systems, your Threat System, and the physiology of self-criticism.

SUMMARY 

  • Stress is a normal process, we can’t completely ever permanently get rid of all stress.
  • Some degree of stress is unavoidable and even necessary – we need a moderate amount of stress to perform at our peak.
  • Too little stress and we will underperform; too much stress and we will become overwhelmed and we will (also) underperform.
  • There are many helpful things that you can do to help yourself reduce and manage stress, so that you can perform at your optimal.
  • Stress has become problematic when: We can’t switch off – feeling alert and anxious even when we want to be resting; We experience sleep disturbances – because poor sleep predicts psychological problems (!); We believe we can’t cope – then, even small things can get us down & leave us exhausted; We withdraw from relationships, work or fun activities; we become irritable or experience difficulties concentrating; we feel anxious, even when not facing difficult situations; or, we are experiencing panic attacks.

If you are struggling with managing stress, it would be helpful to seek the guidance of a clinical psychologist who can help support you emotionally and (when you’re ready) help you to problem-solve and to reduce unnecessary stress from your life. This may include helping you develop ways to deal with difficult emotions while soothing yourself, to develop a plan for dealing with day-to-day demands (prioritising), to help you reconnect with the things you care most deeply about.

Further Resources:

If you would like to discuss working together, I would love to hear from you. I am a PhD Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years’ experience trained in Mindfulness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). 

To book in a session with me:

CONTACT ME

I will typically respond to you within 12-24 hrs.

If you would like to discuss working together, I would love to hear from you. I am a PhD Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years’ experience trained in Mindfulness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). 

To book in a session with me:

CONTACT ME

I will typically respond to you within 12-24 hrs.

Let’s Talk.

    Mindfulness & 

    Clinical Psychology Solutions

     

    admin@mi-psych.com.au
    Po Box 1028, Newtown NSW 2042