Article written by
Dr Camilla Fadel
Camilla is a clinical educator for the team with experience working in Psychiatry, Coaching in the trust and Relationship Counselling for a National charity across South London.
View profile

We all believe we know what it is, but, much like sex, we may be fooled we know more than we do about stress. Wrapped in shame we may also choose to pause before we discuss the topic further. With today National Stress Awareness Day in this blog I wanted to reflect on what we understand stress to be, it’s current impact, links to causation and steps we can arm ourselves with to counter it’s negative effects.

The Realities of stress-

I)Good, Bad and Ugly

Stress is necessary to life. While many of us focus on complete removal we need some stress to motivate us to action, and studies point to the beneficial impact of an acute dose of cortisol. The right place on the stress bell curve we are functioning optimally, able to fight or fly in useful ways. Just like goldilocks and the three bears though the quantity of stress needs to be at a sweet spot. From running a marathon or completing an assignment in the nick of time, when we have too much stress for too long we can freeze- both In real time and in respect of all our bodies operating systems. Our digestive system slows, our immune system weakens and we can find ourselves trapped feeling low physically and mentally.

II)In broader terminology

Stress get’s attached to many other terms- worry, anxiety, burnout, post traumatic stress disorder to name a few. Understanding the backdrops of some of these terms can help to clarify in mind what the uglier versions of stress really are and (later) identify different approaches to counter them. In quick summary running through the terms above:

-Stress is how we respond when we feel under pressure or threatened. This can be linked to different forms of response e.g. our physiological response or increased cortisol – or psychological response of withdrawal/ conflict etc.

-Worry signifies a state where thoughts are negatively impacted towards, typically, a future event/ something anticipated.

-Anxiety signifies a feeling of unease /state of heightened arousal that is negative and not always rooted in a known trigger

-Burnout is a state of feeling rundown (exhausted, depleted, distanced) from work and unable to action the same tasks / function effectively

-Post Traumatic Stress disorder is a condition where an acute traumatic event results in recurrent anxiety, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks of the event and typically avoidance of aspects associated to the event

In essence all terms/ associated states come under three spectrums- thinking or feeling, functional impact and pervasiveness. Difficulty is experienced the more pervasive, greater functional assault and larger degree of impact on thinking or feeling.

Current Impact

With the range of states in mind why do we care anyway? Well ultimately in addition to knowing the ugly affects of stress, above, we know the degree of impact and range of impact is increasing. The nation identifies itself as more stressed across decades and this is resulting in worsening mental health and organisational and cultural impact as work settings see people step back from their roles, whether they remain at their desk or not.

Prior to the pandemic the Mental Health Foundation reported on research around stress that 74% of people had felt so stressed within the year that they were overwhelmed or unable to cope. Younger people felt these impacts more sharply.

Behavioural links were made to unhealthy eating, drinking and smoking with 46%, 29% and 16% of respondents respectively reporting changes in these areas secondary to stress.

Psychological impacts ranged from increasingly feeling depressed (51%) or anxious (61%). Nearly a third of those that felt stressed (32%) had thoughts of suicidality at some point.

Stress was also associated with a social impact with 37% of respondents who felt stressed reporting feeling isolated.

Through the pandemic mental illness has overall worsened and is linked to increasing stressors.

Underlying Causation

Uncertainty and a lack of control can spark feelings of stress. Factors that can be linked include all those where security may be placed into question- including one’s own- and a loved one’s- health and basic needs of financial income and housing.

Social comparison and expectations also heavily drive stress. This can take different forms across groups with the young feeling a pressure to succeed and women a pressure to society’s changing focus on what fits standardised beauty norms. The impact of social media and an always on culture has further negative associations.

It can easily be seen through this list how recent years may push the pedal down fully to accelerate our stress levels with a Pandemic, a new financial crisis in the wings and changing leadership to add a tainted cherry on top.

So what do we do then?

Knowing the factors can mean we mitigate these in as many ways as possible. We can try to not be trapped by the behavioural pulls for example and set ourselves more realistic and compassionate goals with less expectations. It can also be helpful to separate problems and hypotheticals, and stressors or stress. Essentially we aim our efforts to what we can change and acknowledge the stoical truths of what we can’t. For everything else there is the role of having a form of physical release. Stress in the body as a physical tension can build up- literally In cortisol and adrenaline- and light exercise can be a brilliant way to release this.

Becoming proactive I encourage anyone I see therapeutically and in coaching to not only plan for stress when it is chronic but plan an action plan of wellbeing and nourishment to stop it building in the first place. This involves literally timetabling one’s own self-care time- a simple- yet first thing to drop from the life schedule reality. Look at the five – or six – ways of wellbeing below and think what can be planned into every week.

Consider the value to let go and say no. An additionally difficult thing about stress is stressing about it, and this can be such an easy trap to fall into. Just as I started this blog noting some stress can be good – it is entirely normal to experience some negative impacts of stress and we can all save ourselves considerably by not adding another stress layer on top. Our natural inclinations when stressed can be to do more, notice this and instead think- what can I let go of? For many the overwhelm comes from a life that is overwhelming and the solution is not to fix further by scrutinising another way to fit the extra task in, but selecting what tasks need to be dropped and delegated. Boundary setting is so key to a more contented life and asking yourself what do you want to say no to/ or say less to is paramount. Accepting tensions and using mindfulness techniques can all be additionally beneficial, and I include a reference below to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Lastly connect. Many people find the sense of spirituality can either turn them on or firmly off- but others have reframed this instead as a ‘sense of connectedness’ and this really is an antidote for the isolation linked to stress, and in turn dampens stress directly. When we are stressed we find it natural to withdraw, but opening up instead tells our system we can relax back again. Physical touch is calming, increasing oxytocin- the bonding love chemical found between mother and baby and romantic partners- that can zap away at cortisol. Similarly connecting with nature can have a similar physiological response. Returning where the title started us communicate- reflect to yourself how you feel and to others. Whether you journal, or seek therapy- find some space to regularly identify what is hitting for you right now. Let’s talk about Stress and knock any shameful layers far away, so we can use the functional sweet spot of stress and not get stuck in the sour.

References and Resources:

  1. What is stress- https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/stress/what-is-stress/
  2. https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/mental-health-issues/stress/
  3. Stress Statistics - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/mental-health-statistics/stress-statistics
  4. 5 ways to wellbeing/6 ways to wellbeing- https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/
  5. https://www.mentalhealthresource.org.uk/6-ways-of-wellbeing
  6. 10 Stress Busters- https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/tips-to-reduce-stress/
  7. Acceptance and Commitment therapy article- https://www.verywellmind.com/acceptance-and-commitment-therapy-for-stress-relief-4155334