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Is stress all that bad?

February 7th, 2017 by Johanna Denham-Harding

For a long time stress has had a bad reputation - but is it really all that bad?

Although stress is a natural bodily reaction, by thinking about it in an alternative way we can actually reap positive rewards which aren’t normally associated with it. This blog post is going to show how you can change the way you think about pressure and strain.

As the first girl to join the team at Echo I guess the best place to start is a little introduction. I’m a Psychology postgraduate who has just started my first job. I graduated and moved to London in the space of a week and to top it all off, I’m just about getting over Christmas. Talk about stress!

I guess the two most important things to remember are that although my stress level has probably been topping 75%, my mental stamina has increased, I’m starting to reap the rewards associated with mastery, and ultimately, I’ve survived.

Stress - the good and the bad and the ugly…

Running to cram onto the overcrowded tube every morning; remembering you forgot to buy your brother that birthday present you religiously forget every single year - stress is sometimes our best friend but also our worst enemy!

Although some have argued stress can be both a powerful motivating force and even promote creativity - it is still largely understood as being a negative experience.

People report feeling stressed on a daily basis and this seems to have become the norm. In fact, nearly half a million cases of work-related stress were reported in 2015/2016 in the UK alone.

But let’s just put this into perspective: stress isn’t a new concept. ‘Cures for Stress’ made the front page of June 1983’s Time magazine. And the term ‘stress’ was first coined back in 1936 by Hans Seyle with his work attracting lots of attention. Stress became a popular buzzword and was used to describe any situation anyone personally defined as stressful and this continues to be very much the norm.

Echo-NHS-Healthcare-Young-Woman-Stressed

Is stress all in my mind?

Short answer, no. Long answer, when it comes to the mind there’s always a long answer.

Although stress is often thought of as a mental state, it is actually a physical response in our body to something we think is a threat. So that anxious feeling you get as you suddenly realise you may not be the lucky (or unlucky) commuter to push their way onto the packed tube is a reaction to the physical symptoms of stress.

Stress leads to the production of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, making your heart pound and increasing your breathing rate in order to either fight the tiger or turn around and ‘leg-it’. So I guess you’re thinking problems don’t tend to be solved by fighting or running away (and tigers…really?).

In short - our bodies have yet to evolve to deal with how life is now. We are still relying on the 40,000-year-old Fight or Flight Response our early cavemen ancestors used to survive. Everyday life tends to include stressful life events which are very different to that of our ancestors. However, our bodies still respond to the psychological stressors in the same way and this can sometimes lead to illness including heart disease, as a result of stress restricting blood vessels. Not to mention anxiety and depression.

Echo-NHS-Healthcare-Feet-Dangling-Over-Cliff

But what if you believed stress wasn’t bad for you?

A Harvard University study found that when someone interprets the physical symptoms of stress as the body just preparing itself, they feel less stressed. This means having a belief that an increase in your breathing is more oxygen going to your brain and a pounding heart is an increase in blood flow to the body making you ready for action.

Viewing these symptoms as helpful can change your body’s response to stress and actually improve cardiovascular health. Furthermore, by understanding stress to be a positive thing, your mental stamina increases, along with your sense of mastery, and to top it all off you may have a greater appreciation for life.

Echo-NHS-Healthcare-Stress-free-Woman-on-River

Cue the customary quick-fix stress relief techniques. For some, this is the first part of an article they scroll down to, skipping the build up in a bid to read anything that might be a solution to their anxieties. So instead of listing out all those weird and wonderful ways that promise to let you live that stress-free life you dream of, I want to make two points.

1) Experiencing moderate levels of stress and anxiety in small doses is normal and actually makes us perform better. However, excessive or prolonged stress can lead to illness.

2) Remember stress isn’t so bad and by interpreting all those physical symptoms of stress as your body preparing itself to meet the challenge and help you out, you can improve cardiovascular functioning.

So, this is the start of a series of blog pieces that will (hopefully) inform whilst challenging the current norm, with the intention of helping you to perform.

Oh, and for those of you who are still adamantly scrolling down trying to find that stress solution… my stress-buster comes in the shape of Headspace. An app where users can learn mindfulness, a technique that has been recommended by the NHS to help mental wellbeing.

Articles published in Psychology Today have also discussed ways of improving our responses to stress, and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal has given a Ted Talk about ‘How to Make Stress your Friend’.

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