Feeling under Pressure and Stressed? These Action Items Can Help.
Written by Mary Lou von Wyl
When you were a kid, did you use the word ‘stress’? Did you talk about stress when you were in school? What did you and your friends say when you talked about having too much homework to do and not enough time to do it? Or when you had to run home to make sure you were there in time for dinner? What did you say when you wanted to talk about your teacher and your parents demanding things of you? Did you talk about feeling stressed?
It seems that somewhere along the timeline of our lives, we start using the word ‘stress’ to describe situations like those above.
Try this: close your eyes and think about one, pleasant word. ‘Beach’ maybe or ‘sunshine’.
What happens? You feel relaxed, right? You might even smile slightly or take a deep breath.
Now try this: close your eyes and think about one, unpleasant word. ‘Stress’ maybe or ‘anxiety’.
What happens? You don’t feel relaxed, do you? Maybe your facial expression has changed and your breathing is faster. This little exercise helps to show that just the way we think about things can be critical in how we experience them. If we expect to feel stressed in certain situations, then we will feel that way. Words and thoughts are very, very powerful.
Why are some people more stressed?
It is true that some people are more stress ‘resistant’ than others. The question is why? Why are some people able to stay cool in difficult situations and others are not?
We need to understand what stress is.
Back when humans were living in caves, they had to be able to deal with danger – like saber-tooth tigers lurking outside waiting to have them for dinner. During and most likely before this period in human evolution, the human brain developed a ‘warning and action center’. This area of the brain provided these ancients ancestors’ their bodies with the right signals and chemicals so that they could either fight or flee in dangerous situations. Even though most of us are no longer living in caves, that primitive part of our brains is still a part of us.
The only thing that has really changed is how we perceive danger.
Have you ever been driving your car and had a close call? Maybe someone pulled out in front of you and you had to slam on the brakes. Afterward, did your knees feel shaky? That is a result of a surge of chemicals in your body that helped you react quickly and effectively to a perceived threat. Your brain sends out ‘stress hormones’ and your body (mainly your adrenal glands) produces chemicals like cortisol and adrenalin which are quickly released into your circulatory system. This surge of chemicals causes reactions in our bodies – our hearts pump harder, our blood pressure increases, the airways in our lungs open wider and the blood flow to major muscle groups increases, giving us the focus and strength we need to react quickly in dangerous situations. Have you ever heard stories of mothers lifting cars to get to a child that has been trapped underneath? The same chemicals are at work.
Stress is not always bad.
In fact, it is good sometimes to feel stress because it helps us to focus in situations like taking an exam or doing a presentation in front of a room of executives. It is important, though, that after a stress reaction that our relaxation response kicks in. If not, we are under continuous stress which can eventually cause burn out.
Does stress come from nature or nurture?
Some people thrive on doing presentations and deadlines. Some people love it when things are hectic. Other people become ill. There is a lot of debate about whether these reactions are a result of nature or nurture. It could be that some people are simply wired differently than others. In any case, it is important to know how you experience and react to stress.
Here are a few questions that can help:
#1. How do you know you are stressed?
When you feel stressed, what does it feel like? Do you get headaches, have a nervous stomach?
#2. What situations causes stress?
What situations cause you to feel stressed? Are they deadlines? Wasted time?
#3. When exactly do you experience stress?
What are the triggers? Is it when you walk into work or leave to go home? Is it when you open your e-mails? Is it when your phone rings?
#4. What are the consequences of stress?
Do you breathe differently when you are stressed?
#5. Do you use the word stress often?
Is there another way to describe situations or feelings?
These five questions can help you to become aware of what causes stress in your life. Once you are aware of something, it becomes easier to change it. If you answered yes to number 4, you can already do something to help yourself feel better when you are stressed. Sit back and take a few deep, breaths. Even though it sounds simple, slowing things down for a minute and focussing on yourself can help. Make sure that you dedicate some time each day to doing things that relax you. Those few minutes a day can make all the difference.
This blog was written by Mary Lou von Wyl. She is a coach specialized in helping people suffering from burnout.
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