by Ove Heradstveit, psychologist and owner of the web portal Hjelptilhjelp.no
Our everyday lives consist of many tasks, demands and expectations. Life consists of many ideals, dreams and hopes.
People who experience a lot of stress have a tendency to not prioritize what is most important in their lives. When every task becomes super important, this is undoubtedly a good way to create stress.
Often we have to choose, and every choice involves choosing not to do something. It is important to learn that this is simply a part of life and that we are not super humans. We must allow ourselves to let some tasks go, and just take time to have fun.
What happens to the body under stress?
Stress results in a number of bodily changes. What happens is that the brain sends out signals that allow specific types of hormones / substances to be sent out into the body. One of these substances is cortisol. As long as cortisol is being secreted into the bloodstream, your body experiences circulatory changes, lowered metabolism, and your attention is hyperfocused.
This in itself can be both positive and negative.
- One positive aspect of the stress response is that the person is put into a “fight-flight” mode, which means that you are “ready” to act!
- Stress makes you able to perform, and you automatically have stress in your body when you need to do something that is difficult and that requires you to make an effort.
Stress can rapidly turn into something negative and cause anxiety
- This may happen when a person believes something that is difficult is “too” difficult – and then the person believes that he or she is unable to master the challenge at hand, for example. In this situation, stress can be very unpleasant and can actually be experienced as anxiety.
- Stress is when the “fight-flight” responsive is activated. This response is completely natural and harmless, but because of the person’s frightening thoughts/interpretations, the entire bodily reaction is experienced as negative, unmanageable, and perhaps as proof that “something is wrong with me.”
With this in mind, we understand that treating anxiety is largely about teaching a person to have a different view of his or her own reactions
- Treating anxiety is about understanding what happens to the body under stress, and to learn to think differently about this while the person experiences the stress response.
- You must learn to think in ways that are less frightening, and that give you the chance to feel a sense of mastery.
- You need to learn to “face up” to whatever you find difficult, as opposed to avoiding it
In short: Stress is completely natural, but by misinterpreting your stress response, you can perceive stress as if it is anxiety.
Stress can make it so that you never calm down
Another way that stress can be negative, and that cannot be treated as easily as anxiety is when stress becomes prolonged – i.e., when the body never manages to “calm down” again after the person has experienced stress. When the “fight or flight” response (stress response) persists over time, it can result in changes in the body.
Continuous stress can develop as a result of what we call an allostatic overload..
This means that the stress response lasts over an extended period. In practice this means that we are stressed before the challenging situation takes place, while it happens, and also afterwards, as we brood or overthink the situation and our perceived failures. In the worst case, this can mean that a person “never” calms down –meaning that the stress becomes chronic.
Five simple principles that can be of help in coping with stress in the short term:
- Think about creating a balance in terms of what you spend your time on, so that you do more than just the things you must do.
- Learn to prioritize activities that bring you joy.
- Take care of your close relationships – make sure to plan time for your friends and family.
- Learn some form of mental relaxation – such as techniques for mindfulness.
- A certain degree of physical activity is also a good way to unwind.
New thought patterns: Learn a new way to relate to yourself
Over the longer term you will find it of invaluable help to find new ways of thinking and a new way to relate to yourself and your life challenges. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a form of therapy that emphasizes the way we view ourselves, and to a great degree can be decisive for how sick / healthy we become.
The simple way to illustrate this is to look at the half full glass: Is it half full or half empty? Both answers are correct, but one way of looking at the glass (“a half empty glass”) emphasizes limitations, while the other way (“a half full glass”) emphasizes the possibilities, the positive, what is good.
Just as in this example, our language patterns form “truths” that govern how we behave.
If you are convinced that you are going to have pain in your knee after a 30-minute walk, after about 30 minutes of walking, you will be so focused on your potential knee pain that you will come to feel these pains. The pain becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Another example:
If you think of yourself as a particularly stressed person, or a hopelessly ruined individual, or a terrible example of a human being – you will become extremely aware of all of your failings and deficiencies just by virtue of thinking of yourself this way. Every day you will find a series of things that prove you are correct (in other words, the half empty glass actually is half empty!).
If over the longer term you want to become a less stressed person, it is essential that you stop convincing yourself that you are unable to master your life with all its difficulties! You actually need to become your own strongest supporter, one who is much more focused on the possibilities you have rather than your limitations.
When you need something more to lower your stress.
There may be situations and living conditions that are so burdensome that the only way to lower stress is to do something about the situation you find yourself in. Control is a key word here, so that the more control you feel you have, the more you are able to handle more demanding situations before you become sick from stress.
Some situations are simply doomed to create stress, and researchers have studied which events have the greatest traumatizing effects on people.
To live under traumatizing conditions, such as being married to a violent man, or being subjected to various forms of abuse, or being bullied and harassed – all of these situations can create insecurity that ensures that your stress response more or less stays in high gear. It would be wrong to tell people in these situations to use relaxation techniques or to try to think differently about their situation.
People in these highly stressful situations first and foremost need help to regain a feeling of control!
This means that a long series of actions and help may be important for you, depending on what has caused your loss of control of the situation.
Among the situations that can cause a great deal of stress are poverty, an uncertain living situation, bullying, a job that is too difficult, relationship problems, difficulties with parenting, having handicapped or especially demanding children / spouses / family members, substance abuse in the family, and much more.
Whatever makes you suffer from stress, it is important to know that there is hope that you can lower your stress levels, and experience each day as less stressful!