What is stress and how can you manage it? Explained
Published: 2 November, 2018
In today’s fast-paced world it can feel like we are being pulled in a dozen different directions at once. With so many different things vying for our attention it can be hard not to feel stressed, but there are ways you can manage stress to keep both mind and body healthy.
What is stress?
Stress is a normal condition that most of us will deal with at least one time or another over the course of our lives. In fact, a small amount of stress from time to time can actually motivate us to get things done; it’s only when stress is intense and continuous that it can impact both our physical and mental health.
“Stress is different for everyone,” says Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar, Clinical Psychologist at the Black Dog Institute.
“People approach, react and respond to situations differently. What may be a stressful situation for one person, for instance public speaking, will see another person thrive.”
Is stress a mental health condition?
Technically, no. While stress can often be confused with anxiety, it is not technically a diagnosable mental health condition; although, an individual can suffer from both anxiety as well as from stress.
“Even though stress alone is not a mental health condition, if it is not managed it can be a trigger for anxiety, depression and other health issues,” says Prof. Manicavasagar.
“It is important for us to recognise when we are stressed and to have strategies to keep it in check for our overall wellbeing.”
What does stress do to your mind and body?
Stress has two main components – thinking and feeling, which can affect your mood and behaviour.
The thinking part of stress can lead to negative thoughts, such as “I can’t cope with this”, “I can’t do this, it’s too much”.
Meanwhile, the physical (or feeling) part of stress sees your body go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which is essentially your body preparing you to respond quickly to a perceived threat.
While you’re experiencing physical stress, pupils dilate, your heart rate increases, muscles tense and the nervous system kicks in releasing hormones like cortisol, which is a steroid hormone released by the adrenal gland primarily during times of stress.
“Aside from the physical responses, there may also be changes in a person’s behaviour that can indicate they are stressed. They may start drinking more, gambling, self-medicating and making rash decisions,” says Prof. Manicavasagar.
If you begin to notice physical or behavioural signs of stress in either yourself or a loved one, there are strategies you can incorporate, or suggest, that can help to manage stress.
How can you manage stress?
Just as different people respond to stress in different ways, there are a range of strategies you can employ to help you stay on top of and manage your day-to-day stress.
“It is important to learn to recognise your own individual stressors and triggers and how you react and respond to them,” said Prof Manicavasagar.
Our minds like predictability and certainty. Having a consistent daily routine is important to maintain order and can help you feel more in control. It can be as simple as getting up and going for a walk every morning.
Set your priorities
Writing a list is a great way to think about the things you need to achieve, plus it has the added benefit of feeling satisfied when you achieve what you set out to do. It doesn’t just have to be work related, you can include your family and friends to ensure you make time to prioritise personal relationships, too.
- Don’t react to your imagined perception
We all misinterpret what is said or implied from time to time, it’s important to try and give people the benefit of the doubt. Talk over a situation with a trusted friend who may offer a different perspective.
- It’s okay to say ‘no’
It is not uncommon to take on a task merely to seek approval or be accepted. If you have the time and ability to undertake the task requested, that is fine, but if the request is unreasonable or makes you uncomfortable, it is okay to say ‘no’.
- Slow things down
Sometimes we just need to take a breath and a step back to re-centre before committing to something as this allows us to gain perspective. Going for a walk, even for 10 minutes, can help.
- Don’t bottle things up
Expressing your feelings and frustrations to the person responsible for your agitation can be difficult and is not always possible, but it is important to learn to let go of grudges as the only person it hurts is you.
- Be kind to yourself
Don’t waste your time or energy dwelling on past mistakes. Learning to forgive yourself will help you move forward. Make a conscious effort to change your mood by doing something you enjoy.
- Focus on past success
Thinking about a past situation that you handled well can have a positive impact on your mind. Try and get into the practice of thinking about your successes instead of dwelling on perceived failures.
What happens if stress isn’t managed?
Unmanaged stress can have a range of negative impacts on both the mind and the body, so it is really important that we learn to manage our stress levels for our long-term physical and mental health.
“Prolonged unmanaged stress can trigger depression, anxiety, hypertension (ie. high blood pressure) and sleeping problems,” said Prof. Manicavasagar.
“There are also possible links between chronic stress and physical diseases, including cardiovascular disease, thyroid problems and diabetes.”
If you’re having trouble managing your stress, there are resources you can access including online tools like myCompass, which is a personalised self-help program.
Most employers also offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) - your HR department should be able to point you in the right direction to seek assistance (accessing EAP is confidential). Alternatively, you can speak with your GP and get a referral to see a mental health professional.
If you feel stress creeping into your daily life and can feel it taking a toll on your mental and physical health, help is always available; you don’t need to struggle through it alone.
Feeling stressed? Explore more of our self-help tools here.
If you or someone you know is in crisis please call one of the following national helplines:
LIFELINE COUNSELLING SERVICE - 13 11 14
SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE 1300 659 467 (cost of a local call)