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Definition

Webster’s dictionary defines stress as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” So what does that look like in the real world?

The Yerkes-Doson curve (below) has long been a way to illustrate what happens with stress levels in relation to performance. The interesting takeaway from this is that we actually need stress in our lives to motivate us and get us to peak levels of performance. The trouble is, too much stress, over a prolonged period of time, can lead us to a tipping point (overload stress), where we begin to experience both mental and physical fatigue. Continued high levels of stress exposure almost inevitably lead to some form of breakdown (burnout), where both mental and physical ill health is a very real possibility.

Signs & Symptoms

Overload stress can often be something that others observe in us before we actually see it ourselves. The symptoms can be varied, but might include: increased irritability, excessive worrying, low mood, apathy, fatigue, restlessness, increased or decreased appetite, sleeplessness, headache, muscle ache and stomach upsets. These symptoms will obviously vary from person to person, but it is important to recognise changes to your normal thoughts and behaviours.

Burnout stress is really at the extreme end of the scale and is usually the stage where mental and/or physical health begin to deteriorate.

The Impact of stress

Stress, if unrecognised, can have a significant impact on both our mental and physical health. Stress triggers the release of hormones in our bodies, mainly cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are primarily responsible for enabling our bodies to cope during dangerous situations- the “fight or flight” mode. Our body is essentially given more energy and sharper reflexes during these times as we prepare to deal with a dangerous situation. This is only ever meant to be for short periods of time. However, overload stress can cause a situation where we continue to produce these hormones when they are not required. Doing this over a sustained period of time is really not a good idea for our bodies creating burnout which  can lead to significant mental and physical health problems.

What can we do?

As stated before, we actually need stress in our lives. We need it to react to dangerous or life threatening situations (fight or flight), but we also need it to perform at our peak efficiency in other areas of our life such as  exams, careers and sports. As important as that peak performance is, we also need to have times when we do not have to perform, times where we can “switch off” the performance hormones. In effect, we need to find ways of de-stressing which will turn off that “hormone tap”.

Fortunately, there are ways to do this. Exercise and diet play an important role in many aspects of our lives including reducing our stress levels. Exercise has long been known to help us to relax and unwind, and a healthy diet can keep our body nourished and help us to avoid the temptations of overeating or indulging in chemical stimulants to help us cope. Interestingly, alcohol can actually lead to increased stress levels, as well as decreasing our quality of sleep.

There are also benefits in seeking alternative pursuits to help us cope with stress, if for no other reason than they provide a distraction and a change of focus from the things that are stressing us. Play golf, take up chess or origami, go bungee jumping- the possibilities are endless!

Many people find the use of meditation techniques particularly beneficial, including using deep breathing and relaxation techniques as well as yoga, tai chi and many others. Whilst not for everyone, these techniques can have a profound impact on your state of mind and can play an important role in reducing stress levels.

Finally, some will seek the services of a professional to help them, be it a life coach, counsellor, psychiatrist or psychologist. These individuals can be useful in helping to change your thoughts and behaviour, allowing  you to find new ways to deal with the stresses in your life. In addition to talking therapies, use of medications such as antidepressants or tranquillisers may be indicated, however, these must always be taken under the supervision of a suitably qualified professional.