“Stress”, the very word can cause your heart to beat faster and the hair on your arms to stand up. It can make you sweat and maybe even feel nauseous. These are all stress responses – to a word. A word we all know all too intimately. And probably for all the wrong reasons.
Because stress isn’t all bad. The word “stress” was first coined by physician and physiologist Hans Selye in 1936. He defined it as the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change. Not all demands for change are negative. That stress response described above could be excitement at driving a new and meaningful project, it could be feeling motivated to do something daring or being spurred into positive action. It is a feeling of agency and energy. It’s those butterflies before an event that propels the athlete, the actor, and the presenter to perform at their best the moment the gun goes off, they step on the stage or in front of the podium.
That surge, however, does not last for very long – three minutes at most. And it shouldn’t. No matter whether the stress is positive or negative the stress response should be short-lived. Like any emotion it should come and it should go. The problem, therefore, arises when it doesn’t.
A stress response, positive or negative, causes a flood of chemicals and hormones throughout the body while simultaneously shutting down other, momentarily unnecessary body processes. Like the digestive system, your immune system and reproductive system. When stress continues unabated for days, weeks or even months the damage can be severe.
When you are stressed it is very difficult to fall pregnant. Digestive problems caused by stress are not only uncomfortable but can result in weight gain or drastic weight loss. The impact of stress on your immune system makes it less likely that you are able to fight infection and disease and you could end up getting ill.
It is pretty obvious that it is important to manage our stress levels. What’s not always obvious is how. There are loads of articles and books that will tell you to eat better, sleep more, get more exercise, take breaks, cut down on caffeine and alcohol and say “No” more. These are all valid and useful pieces of advice and in and of themselves, don’t feel too difficult to do.
Great, you think, feeling determined, this year is going to be different, you are going to make a wholesale change to your life and watch the stress fall away.
But, no, trying to do too much at once will be too overwhelming, may cause more stress and is a certain route to falling off the de-stress wagon. And then that makes you feel like a failure and you pile guilt and disappointment onto the stress you already feel.
That’s the challenge with change, as humans we do not like it. Even if we know that it is unavoidable, change is, in and of itself, stressful. Therein lies the paradox and the reason why any lifestyle changes we attempt to make often fail.
So what to do?
Change requires commitment, energy and discipline. The change you want needs to be important enough that you are prepared to invest your time and resources into it. You only have so much of both.
Before you do anything, the first step is to acknowledge where you are right now. What is working in your life? What do you want more of? How does it look, sound, smell and feel? On the other hand, what is not working and adding to or triggering your stress? What do you want less of?
Before you try to change your world, there are things that you have no control over and any energy focused in that area will only increase your stress. What do you need to accept and what can you realistically change?
So, you’ve decided that you really do want less stress in your life, ask yourself what kind of lifestyle changes are you prepared to make. Consider these carefully, then choose one thing that will make a small but significant difference. One thing that you can fit into your life or do without. One thing that you can commit to. Only one. Do that one thing, commit to it and know that you probably will lapse at some point. It’s okay. Be kind to yourself and just come back. Again and again. Once that change has become a new habit you can take the next step.
Reducing stress is a long term strategy not a once off event. It is multifaceted and requires a holistic approach taken one small step at a time. Kindly and with compassion.