Stress isn’t always obvious. Sometimes we can be so caught up in the pressures of life that it creeps up on us unawares, or disguises itself as other things like stomach cramps or being late to work a lot. And when you’re on autopilot juggling a busy schedule, it’s easy to ignore the signs.
In essence, stress is your reaction to feeling pressured, overwhelmed or threatened. It happens when you’re dealing with more than you can manage, whether that’s physically, mentally or emotionally. When you are pushed outside of your window of tolerance — the state where you are best able to function and thrive — then you become vulnerable to stress.
It is also a very common problem. For instance, a 2017 UK-wide survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of adults had been so stressed in the past twelve months that they felt unable to cope. And for women, those numbers were even higher at 81%, while for young people aged 18 to 24 they were as high as 83%. In other words, we’re a stressed out nation — and it’s impacting us in many different ways.
Stress can be useful for short bursts of time as it mobilises our systems to respond to pressure, enhancing focus and performance. However, we haven’t evolved to have it as a chronic or habitual response to life. And the longer that stress lasts, the more harmful it can be to your wellbeing.
So just because stress is common, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. While it’s understandable to want to brush it under the carpet so you ‘can get on with things’, the long-term effects of stress can take their toll on your mental and physical health.
For instance, the aforementioned Mental Health Foundation study found that one sixth of people reported being driven to self-harm as a result of stress. Also, 32% of adults had experienced suicidal feelings due to the condition, with the numbers being at nearly 40% in the 18 to 24 group.
Added to this, being stressed out can increase your risk of anxiety and depression, as well as substance abuse issues and addictive behaviours. It can also have an impact on your physical health, contributing to heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, plus sleep problems, muscle tension and burnout (an extreme state of energy depletion).
That’s why it is crucial to be aware of your stress levels, learning to spot that point when they tip over from optimum into overwhelming. So let’s explore some of the initial indicators.
Warning signs of stress can be split into three categories — mental & emotional, physical and behavioural, as follows:
If you can relate to some of the above then you might well be experiencing stress, which shouldn’t be ignored. According to Dr. Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, we have to ‘Learn to read symptoms not only as problems to be overcome but as messages to be heeded.’ But what can you do about it?
A good starting point is to pause for a self-check-in when you think you might be experiencing stress and ask yourself:
‘Is anything different from normal for me?’
‘What kind of thoughts are going through my mind?’
‘What emotions are around me at the moment?’
‘How am I feeling in my body?’
‘What have I been doing to take care of myself?’
There are also many helpful stress management techniques that you can try, from journalling to meditation to progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). As well as this, you can explore specific strategies for workplace stress. And while all of these can be useful, it is also important to get to the root of the actual issue — why are you feeling so overwhelmed?
Sometimes you might get stressed out without knowing why, especially if you haven’t got into the habit of checking in with yourself and your emotions (or feel unable to do so). If overwhelm has become a way of life for you then it can be difficult to pinpoint the actual causes — or even the specific emotions you are having — as everything might just feel like too much all at once.
It can also be all too easy to blame signs of stress on external factors, such as a particularly busy period at work, while ignoring underlying issues that might be exacerbating how you’re feeling. These could include coping strategies like perfectionism, procrastination, people-pleasing and particular styles of thinking, which can make an already challenging situation feel even more stressful. Additionally, unresolved grief, past traumas or other mental health challenges can all raise your stress levels before you even face any external situations.
This is why sometimes, understanding stress requires a bit of a deep dive and it can be helpful to do this with a therapist. Here are five key ways that therapy can help:
Therapy can help you make sense of how you respond to pressure in your body, mind and emotions. For instance, what role are internal and external stressors playing in certain situations? Talking to a therapist can also help to normalise stress, reduce emotional overwhelm and get your thinking ‘back online’. This way, you can make any changes that need to be made and where that’s not possible, find ways to ride out the difficult period.
Are you putting unnecessary pressure on yourself? Are you burying your emotions so much that you are drained of energy, making everything feel more overwhelming? Are you neglecting your own needs for the sake of everyone else’s? With the support of a compassionate, non-judgemental therapist, you can look at how your beliefs, behaviours and experiences might be creating more stress in your life.
Various therapeutic approaches can help you to manage challenging thoughts, feelings and situations. These include:
i) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) — how are you making sense of what's happening in your life? For instance, are unhelpful perspectives like ‘all or nothing’ thinking styles having an impact? CBT will help you to examine this. You might also take part in roleplay exercises with your therapist, such as assertive communication skills. This way you can learn to set better boundaries and avoid being put under too much pressure in life or work.
ii) Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) — what are your coping strategies in stressful situations? Do they honour your values? And could they actually be increasing your distress? ACT will explore all of this. For example, is getting through a busy period at work by doing lots of overtime taking you in a career direction that matters to you? Is it in line with your values? Or are you remaining in a job or environment that isn’t actually working for you?
iii) Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) — what role are both self-criticism and shame playing in your life? Could they be aggravating stressful situations? For instance, do you feel the need to do every task perfectly so that you can be accepted by others? A CFT therapist will help you to examine these issues, as well as exploring any life experiences that could be causing you to lack compassion for yourself at times.
iv) Mindfulness Therapy — how much of what you're feeling is due to the actual circumstances themselves? And how much is your mind being pulled into worries about what might happen? Mindfulness Therapy will help train your brain to simply notice fears and worries without getting caught up in them, so that stressful periods become more manageable. And by learning to focus on the present moment, you might find yourself more able to cope with problems when they arise.
Approaches like Schema Therapy and EMDR can help to discern the difference between current life stressors and old, unprocessed emotions that might have been activated by them. This way, you can understand the role that distressing past experiences might be playing in your current life and in how you react to pressures or challenges.
With a therapist, you can start to notice how your whole system becomes affected by stressful events. You can also look at ways to both prevent and release built-up tension in the body, for instance by expressing emotions via Art Therapy or completing the stress response with Body Focused Psychotherapies.
There are lots of options for managing stress and sometimes it can have a straightforward solution, such as making a change at work. At other times, making external changes is not the solution and the stress response might have its roots in past experiences. Yet whatever the causes, by learning to spot the early warning signs you can avoid overwhelm and steer yourself in a new direction when it all gets too much.
Dealing with stress, anxiety or burnout? Talk to an expert MTA therapist via an in-person, video or live chat appointment. Or take our Right Match Assessment to find the best therapist for you.
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