Stress and Un Conscious Actions: Causes, Symptoms and Management
Stress occurs when the demands of a situation exceed that person’s perceived abilities to cope. This means that what each of us considers stressful may vary according to how we assess our capabilities to deal with a particular situation.
In it’s most basic form stress is not harmful and is in fact what gets us out of bed each morning and helps us to complete tasks during the day. Biologically, our neural (nervous), hormonal and immune systems are designed to help our bodies to react to both psychologhical and physical stress by setting off what is known as the Fight or Flight repsonse. In fact our immune systems fight physical “stressors” i.e. germs, on a daily basis.The Fight or Flight response (F/F Response)
The Fight or Flight response comes from a part of our brain that evolved early in the evolution of man. It is a very instinctive part of the brain which we share with much of the animal kingdom and includes many of the most primitive instincts which we see today in animals such as the freeze / startle response.
Life for early man would have involved a daily struggle to find food. Daily life would probably have been very dull until that early man found a wild animal – which he could either kill and eat or be eaten by. Either option needed a quick surge of energy and peak concentration to either fight and hopefully kill the animal or to run away (flee).
During this Fight or Flight reponse the body learned to do a number of phenomenally clever things, such as making the heart and lungs work harder to pump lots of oxygen -filled blood to the main muscles of the body required for fighting or running.
The pupils of the eyes dilated to improve vision, and the body sweated to avoid overheating during the task. If he survived to live another day this surge of energy in the body would dissipate and the body would return to normal levels of functioning.
These clever changes in the body were very adaptive and helped man to survive and thrive and therefore became ingrained in our genetics right up to modern man.
The F/F reponse is controlled by an unconscious part of our nervous system called the Autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is also responsible for other unconscious actions in the body such as the blinking of the eyes and the beating of the heart.
Although the symptoms of the F/F reponse can be extremely uncomfortable at best and in fact terrifying for many sufferers of anxiety, some people do find solace in the knowledge that the symptoms are actually your body’s way of protecting you when your thoughts tell it that you are in danger.
It is nice to know, that while the part of your brain that evolved later helps you to think and be polite to others, the very primitive ancient part of your brain that houses the F/F response is only interested in protecting you and your survival. It’s on your side, trying to help you to fight or flee whatever it is that you see as a potential threat.
Of course , modern stressors rarely require you to fight or run away from anything but we still get that same unwelcome surge of energy running through us that early man experienced. Therefore, if you want to stop the Fight or Flight response from “revving up” you need to start with taking a look at your thoughts.
Nowadays, potential “threats” i.e. stressors are often psychological rather than physical. We don’t often come across life or death situations but instead a multitude of smaller daily hassles. Your day may start with you hitting the snooze button too often and you get out of bed already behind on time.
Then you realise that the shirt / skirt you wanted to wear isn’t ironed / you need to get petrol on the way to work or you forgot to give your son his football kit for school. As the day goes on small hassles pile on top of you; you’re avoiding a call from someone because you don’t have the answers they want, you haven’t time to get to visit your friend in hospital, you need to write an email to someone / prepare a report etc.
Later in the day you dash to collect / deliver children wherever they are supposed to be / get a take – away meal because you don’t have time or energy to cook and fall in to bed feeling guilty because you haven’t made time for exercise / home cooked food for the family / elderly parents etc.
In the present economic climate you may also have an ongoing fear of losing your job or not knowing how you could possibly find another one or pay your bills etc.which tap into our very primitive need for safety and security. These stressors also affect your sleep patterns, leaving you feeling un-refreshed when you wake in the morning.
Modern life piles pressure after pressure on us, so that instead of our stress response peaking and subsiding within a matter of minutes as it is designed to do, the F/F response is always “switched on”, and the body never reverts it’s “rest and repair” mode. This “always on” state is known as “chronic stress”.Coping with Stress – Stress Management
If you are currently suffering from stress you may feel very unmotivated to do anything about it. Stress has a very addictive nature to it; it skews our thinking to look for other potential threats which means that we tend to get stressed about things that wouldn’t otherwise bother us. This leads to a downward spiral that is hard to escape.No Yoga Mats and Candles required.
If at the moment you are only willing to do one small thing to help yourself, breathing and relaxation exercises will probably have the most immediate effect. However exercise and challenging negative thought patterns using techniques such as Cognitive therapy (with the help of a professional) will help you gain long-term benefits.
Whatever you choose, don’t put off doing something about your stress levels because you think it is just another thing on your list of things to do. Just 10 minutes relaxation a day will relax you enough to see that you can take some things off that list. Remember stress is addictive- it makes you add unnecessary things to your “To Do” list.
Brief relaxation strategies such as breathing exercises have a physiological effect on the body. Resulting changes in the body chemistry and musculature have a knock-on effect on the mind and will allow you to gain some perspective and kick-start your problem-solving capibilities.
If you’re not “into” yoga mats and candles don’t worry – if you are – great , you may find it easier to escape stress. But you don’t need to be “that kind of person / into alternative stuff” to be able to feel better. Many clients who attend Access Psychology’s Dublin clinic say that they cannot find a time in their day to get some quiet time and that arriving home just means different stressors.
For these people we recommend that they find a carpark somewhere on their way home from work before school runs etc to pull in, put the seat back and listen to a short relaxation exercise Others may choose to listen to it while on the bus, tram or train. Using such exercises at bedtime can also help with switching off the mind and falling asleep.
Some simple relaxation and breathing strategies will be available on this site soon.Cognitive Therapy
We all have habits in our thinking that are unconscious to us. Stress also causes us to think in certain ways that are unhelpful.
Cognitive therapy involves discussion, self-reflection and pen and paper exercises to help identify any unhelpful patterns in your thinking that may worsen the problems you are encountering. It is usually done with the help of a psychologist or other health professional as it is very difficult to become aware of your own automatic thoughts without the help of an outside observer.
The damage that chronic stress can cause should not be underestimated. Make sure you speak to someone – a professional or just a friend about how you feel and what you are experiencing. Remember – even 10 minutes of relaxation exercises can help you to feel better and to see ways out of problems more easily. It will be time spent productively.