Brodie Earl, Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
11 April 2018
You know those moments when you feel tense and on edge, like if anyone was to say anything to you at that moment you would just explode?
Those times when you’re so busy, or have something really important or difficult to focus on that any interruption seems like the worst thing in the world?
And even after you’ve taken some time out to sit down and unwind (perhaps with a cheeky glass of wine), you still can’t seem to relax…
well that’s stress
My clients will often ask me why we get so stressed, and there is a very good reason for it.
Back in the days when we used to live in caves and hunt for food, our stress response helped to keep us alive. When we were faced with danger, our “fight or flight” response kicked in.
What Happens when the fight or flight response is active?
1. Adrenalin is released and our muscles tense to help us run or kick some serious lion butt
2. Our hearts beat faster to pump the blood around our body
3. We sweat to keep cool
4. Our digestive system shuts down so all of our energy can be focused on running/fighting (that’s why sometimes we lose our appetite or feel a bit nauseous when stressed), and
5. All of our attention focuses in on the threat so we aren’t distracted by other, less important, things.
All of this helped our ancestors to survive. And lucky us, they passed on this super helpful stress response to us.
So now, when we have a deadline at work and we’re afraid of what our boss might do if we miss it – stress! Or when we’re going on a first date and the guy or girl is super ridiculously attractive – stress!
Unfortunately, most of the “threats” we face nowadays aren’t lions or tigers or bears (oh my!), so running away or getting into a fight won’t be that helpful. In fact, these days we tend to run away by avoiding through procrastination, or our fight comes out as being really snappy towards others or extra-critical of ourselves.
How can stress be good?
Lower levels of stress can motivate us to get our butts into gear and start working on that big project just a little earlier, or help us to make sure we get to that date on time and looking hot.
It also helps to focus our attention on the things that are important (aka the things that are likely to be a problem if they’re not addressed very soon). There have actually been research studies to indicate that there is an optimum amount of stress for productivity – too little, and you’re not motivated; too much, and you’re so overwhelmed you get nothing done.
When is stress not good?
Stress becomes problematic when it’s happening too often, it’s really overwhelming, or when you’re experiencing constant low-level stress for a long period of time.
It’s this kind of stress that stops you from winding down because not only has the stress helped you to focus your attention on the stuff that’s making you stressed, but it stops you thinking about anything else. And these thoughts are enough to cause all those uncomfortable stress responses in your body.
So what can you do about it?
Well, if there is something stressful happening in your life at the moment, then remind yourself that it’s normal to be stressed!
It will probably go away when the stressful situation dies down and in the meantime it’s helping to keep you focused and motivated.
Set yourself boundaries around the stressful situation where possible – if it’s work, make sure you prioritise your tasks, acknowledge the things you have accomplished, and set a time that you stop working and stick to it. If it’s a person, make sure you only meet up with them in small bursts and limit the time you spend with them (“Oh I’m so glad you called! Just letting you know I can only chat for about half an hour before I have to go.”)
Make sure you are taking time to consistently do things you enjoy, exercise, eat well and get enough sleep. Try relaxed breathing or mindfulness (‘Smiling Mind’ is a good app for this). Write down all the worries you have and set aside a time to think about them properly; this can help if the same things are going around and around in your mind.
If you’ve tried all of the above and are still finding stress difficult to manage, it might be helpful to make an appointment with a psychologist who will help to tailor some specific strategies that work for you and your lifestyle.
Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
Brodie is a psychologist who enjoys working with adults and young people who have difficulty managing strong emotions, assisting them to develop tailored strategies to manage feelings more effectively & improve relationships. She also has an interest in working creatively with families, assisting parents to better understand and respond to their child’s behaviour and strengthen the parent-child relationship, to achieve the best outcomes for the whole family.