The release of stress hormones helps our hero fight or flight from danger.
The pupils in his eyes dilate allowing more light information in, all the better for seeing with. His bronchial tubes dilate to allow more oxygen into the bloodstream which can be directed to those parts of the body which need it. The heartbeat is increased to pump more blood around the body. Sweat glands are activated to ensure that he does not overheat. Glycogen is released from the liver to provide energy and all non-emergency functions are suppressed in the body as the main focus is to meet this stressor head-on or get away from it.
When our hero has gained mastery over the stressor, then the nervous system calms everything back down and our bodily functions return to normal.
If the stress continues then other hormones such as cortisol help the continued battle with the stressor. A feedback system ensures that the biological response continues until such time that everything can return to a safe, normal situation.
Does any of that sound familiar?
When someone describes being stressed or afraid, they often describe their heart beating quickly and sweating more than usual, as well as faster breathing. It is not difficult to recognise the signs of the body working to help you deal with the stress in your environment. I am sure you have also noticed that it is the same response to fear. Fear is a trigger to the physiological stress response.
Preparation is key when avoiding the negative effects of stress. Waiting to be stressed before managing it can be more difficult than understanding what you can do to prevent the stress from becoming unhelpful.
When the circumstances require immediate stress management, for example, an upcoming test/exam, work presentation or stress associated with unexpected family circumstances, it is possible to use a mixture of suggestion therapy and coaching methods to manage the impact of stress symptoms.
When stress is triggering anxiety and/or has continued to be problematic even when the circumstances have changed or if pre-existing anxieties (phobias, panic attacks, depression) are exacerbated by stressful circumstances, Hypnoanalysis can be used to remove the root cause of the anxieties, so stressful circumstances are easier to manage in the future.
There is a problem though… the stresses we deal with now are not the same as those our early ancestors faced. How many times have you been cornered by a wild animal while out hunting for tonight's dinner?
Our environment has changed as well as the things that produce stress and yet the biological system for dealing with it is still similar.
It is not as easy to get away from that work deadline or relationship problems. We can’t fight or flee from those in the same way, and therefore it is much harder for us to gain mastery over them and return to a calm state of affairs. As a result, our body continues to be in a state of alert battling a stressor which continues to cause us problems.
Psychological stress is not the same as physiological stress (although one does interact with the other) and it could be argued there is a mismatch between the stresses we face today and the system our body uses to deal with them.
It's logical that we should default to over-estimating the potential threat rather than underestimating. Just like early hunters/gathers who saw that suspicious movement in the grass when they were out hunting had two choices.
1: I bet that isn’t a wild animal who might attack me. It was just the wind.
2: That could be a wild animal stalking me and I’m at risk of an attack.
I’m sure you can see that it makes sense to choose the second option. Over-estimating the potential threat and getting it wrong, no harm is done and he survives. However, if he took the first option and under-estimated the threat and was wrong; then he is more likely to die.
When faced with contemporary stress we do the same thing, and default to the over-estimation, over-thinking the problem. Recognising and challenging unhelpful overthinking helps to prevent the stress from becoming problematic.
Stress motivates us into action and can push us toward our goals and ambitions. The student who is studying for their exams is fully aware of the stress and pressure of the situation, alongside the stress induced by expectations.
They could be forgiven for thinking that it's anxiety but we could also
argue that it's a natural response to the demands of the situation.
If it prevents them from studying and affects other aspects of their life, we might say it is no longer helpful. This is why managing stress is so important.
Our physiological stress response is an incredibly useful process. We have inherited, from our ancestors; a biological process that helps us deal with the stresses in our environment, and it all happens automatically.
Let’s imagine a primitive man who while out hunting is faced with the potential attack from a wild animal. Our hero has a choice to make in a split second: to fight or flight. Either way, the organism snaps into action to deal with this pending threat.
Chemical messengers are released to alert our (sympathetic) nervous system which, through a relay of other chemicals, organises the release of adrenaline.
Stress is not about the demands of the circumstances it's about whether we believe we can cope with those demands.
This explains why one person may find it difficult to deal with stressful events while another can cope with the same circumstances comparatively easily. They perceive their ability to cope differently.
Our previous experience dealing with stress - If you are used to dealing with stress and have found it easy to manage the psychological and physical effects in the past, you are more likely to have a positive expectation of your ability to cope with current stress.
The stressful situation is predictable - If you anticipated the stressful events, you were able to prepare both psychologically and practically to deal with the demand. The preparation gave you more control over the circumstances and you are likely to believe you could cope.
You have good social support - If you have an effective network of support, you will find it easier to manage the negative psychological effects of stress. Colleagues, family and friends can become a sounding board for your stress and reduce the mental impact of stress.