Stress is an unavoidable part of normal life. Too much may greatly reduce our quality of life and our ability to achieve our goals, both at work and in our personal life. However, the right amount of stress can be a beneficial force, spurring us on to achieve better and better results. We do not need to try to get rid of stress altogether, but many of us can benefit from learning how to manage it more effectively.
Psychological and social stress is a relatively new invention. Our stress reactions have evolved over millions of years to help us cope with much more basic survival situations. In evolutionary terms, it is only the blink of an eye since humans lived as hunter-gathers, sprinting cross the savannah in search of prey, or to escape a hungry predator. We are extremely adept at coping with acute physical stressors of this kind – the flight or fight response outlined to the right is just what we need. We are also well-designed to cope with chronic physical stressors, such as drought, famine, parasites.
Problems arise because our body reacts to psychological and social stressors as if they were physical stressors. The result is that we often react to stress in ways that are inappropriate, unhelpful and harming. The flight or fight response, which is ideally suited to helping us escape a hungry lion, can be disastrous to our health because we switch it on for months at a time, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions. We are in a state of chronic stress.
The following four-step exercise will help you to assess sources of stress in your life and your current overall stress level.
Step One: learn to recognise your own signs
Everyone responds in their own way to increasing stress. Some people become progressively more frantic and impetuous, others drag their feet and avoid making decisions. In both cases, stress makes them less efficient. The important thing is to know how you react. The better you know your own signs, the better you will be able to cope with the problem. Learn about yourself by focusing on situations and times when you know you were stressed in the past. You can then learn to recognise your signs early, in order, in future, to take action before the stresses get out of hand. The following questions will help you to recognise your reactions.
Consider each question carefully and jot down your answers.
- What does it feel like when you are stressed?
- How does it show?
- What thoughts run through your mind?
- What do you do?
- How does it affect others?
- How do their reactions affect you?
In order to help you detect stress in your life, use the following list. Go through it carefully, ticking any symptom you recognise. The list is divided into four sections. Most people who suffer from stress find that it affects them in all four ways, so if you mark nothing in one of the sections, you should probably think again.
changes that may be signs of stress
- Irritability; you become short-tempered, or easily flare up.
- Anxiety or feelings of panic.
- Fear – e.g. of being out of control.
- Feeling worried – e.g. about your health, or anything else.
- Feeling miserable or tearful.
- Apathy or agitation.
- Lowered self-esteem.
- Forgetting things; making mistakes.
- Finding it hard to concentrate.
- Becoming indecisive.
- Getting muddled or confused.
- Being unable to think far ahead.
- Worrying or ruminating rather than solving problems.
- Becoming rigid and inflexible, in an effort to keep control.
- Predicting the worst.
- Getting worse at managing your time.
- Getting worse at organising yourself, and others.
- Rushing hither and thither.
- Finding it hard to delegate.
- Working longer and longer hours.
- Bring work home; working on weekends.
- Avoiding tackling problems, or doing things you dislike.
- Cutting down on the things you do for pleasure.
- Losing touch with your friends.
- Blaming others for the problem.
- Taking it out on others (‘kicking the car’).
- Finding there’s no time to enjoy yourself.
- Needing a drink; turning to drugs.
- Needing tranquillisers or sleeping tablets.
- Aches and pains, especially headaches or stomach-aches.
- Tension – e.g. in your neck or shoulders.
- Frequent minor ailments.
- Disrupted sleep patterns.
- Appetite for food increased or decreased.
- Appetite for sex increased or decreased.
- Flare up of stress-related illness such as psoriasis or asthma.
Step Two: weigh the size of the load
Take an objective look at the stresses you face, and write them down if you can. As we have seen, stress is cumulative, so the small things (the chores) count as well as the big ones (your job, your finances, and friendships). Beware of discounting the load in a way that many people do, thinking, for example, ‘everyone else copes with at least as much’ or ‘I should be able to manage, I could last year.’ A heavy load, carried for a long time, wears you down in the end, and different people find different things stressful. Discounting your load only adds internal stress to the external load and puts you under more pressure.
Jot down any current stresses in your life.
Step Three: think about recent changes in your life
Changes mean that you need to adapt, so all of them, even if they are for the better, contribute to your level of stress. The demand is obvious if the stress is an illness like arthritis or losing your job, and less obvious if it comes from being promoted or getting married. Even changes that apparently lessen your load, like retirement or readjusting after your children leave home, can be stressful. Changes of all kinds use up energy, leaving you less to spare until you have adjusted to the changes. Moving house is one of the most underestimated of major changes, and can take months to adapt to completely.
Add to your list any changes that have happened to you in the last year. Our list, below, gives some examples of the types of change that we know commonly contribute to stress.
Some of the most common stressful events include:
- Major Changes
- Changing jobs
- Getting married, separated or divorced
- Business readjustments
- Moving house
- Leaving school, or changing schools
- Outstanding achievement
- Getting or losing a mortgage
- A friend or relative dies
- People you are close to move away
- Children leaving home
- Stopping work
- Giving up work to have children
- Disruption to Routine
- Vacations, Christmas, bank holidays
- Someone new in the home (e.g. a friend or new baby)
- Stopping smoking or drinking
- Trouble and Strife
- Arguments, especially with a partner
- Brushes with the law
- Financial problems
Step Four: think about recent changes in yourself
Having thought about how you respond to stress, the pressures on you, and recent events in your life, do you think that you are too stressed right now? Look again at the list ‘Changes that may be signs of stress’. Have you noticed any recent changes in yourself that might be due to excess stress?
You should now have a good idea of how much stress you are currently under.
stress as a motivating force
Although we tend to concentrate on the negative impact of too much stress, and the way this can be combated, it is worth bearing in mind that stress can be a powerful force for action too. Think about some of the ways in which stress sometimes propels you towards action. The pressure of earning enough to pay the mortgage may encourage you to work harder in a drive towards promotion. The looming deadline on a project you have been putting off, compels you to get started and complete it. By managing stress effectively we can ensure it is a positive force in our lives, giving us the strength to work through difficult patches and helping us to achieve our long-term goals.