Why am I stressed? Why can’t I cope? Why am I feeling this way?
During therapy, an important part that needs to be addressed is the explanation of all the different terms: emotions, thoughts, behaviors, coping mechanisms, patterns and -of course- stress. Understanding these terms is fundamental for the therapeutic experience. As a Psychologist specialised in stress management, I can tell you with certainty that stress is one of the most important terms a human being needs to understand about themselves.
When I ask my clients “What do you think stress is?”, the first reaction is silence. Stress is one of the things we think we know but in reality we don’t. Following silence, the answer will be “Stress is an emotion”. And thus begins the debunking of the common misconceptions about stress.
Myth #1 Stress is An emotion
-“How do you feel?”
-“I feel stressed”
Stress refers to a response which includes the activation of a series of mechanisms in our nervous, immune and endocrine system. It is a biological reaction which helps us understand, cope and adjust to the changes of our environment. It is common in our daily life to refer to stress as something we feel but the biological mechanisms involved in stress cannot be actively realised (how do you know when your immune system activates anti-inflammatory mechanisms?)
What we usually experience that could help us understand that we are stressed is physical signs (e.g. sweating, increased heart rate, quicker breathing etc) and emotional signs (anxiety, fear, anger, excitement, happiness etc). Therefore, stress is not an emotion but it can lead to the experience of one.
Let’s see an example!
Imagine having a very busy day at work, with a long to-do list and limited time. You can tell that you may not have the time to finish everything today. In days like that, Your stress response is activated to help you understand what are your resources to cope with the challenge. But you do not actually feel this activation. What is more possible to experience is feelings of anxiety, irritability, fear or even anger. You may also experience “butterflies” in your stomach, excessive sweating in your palms or a headache from the pressure.
Myth #2 Stress is something that goes away
-“Are you still stressed?”
-“No, I am not stressed anymore”.
So let’s say now that your busy day at work is successfully done and you are ready to go home. You don’t feel anxious anymore. All the physical signs are also done and your feel relieved. At this point your brain realises that the danger is gone and the challenge is over. So it can give the sign to all the systems involved to “calm down”. So the stress response is deactivated. Does this mean though that stress completely goes away?
No. The stress response can be deactivated after the completion of a challenge in our environment, but it never reaches zero activation. The stress response is in a dynamic balance that allows our body and brain to maintain a good enough condition to survive. This dynamic balance is a sign of life and only after death are living organisms in a condition of absolute zero activation of these systems. This way our stress response is ready to jump in to protect us when there is a threat in the environment.
Myth #3 Stress is only negative
-“I am so stressed. This is so bad for me”
After reading about the other two myths, you may feel disheartened that stress is something we cannot completely get rid off. This thought may be logical if you think that stress can only be a negative thing. But the stress response is not black and white. Everyone has a threshold in their stress activation. Before this threshold, our stress response is activated at a point of optimum functionality. We usually refer to it as “productive stress”. After this threshold we start experiencing the negative effects of stress. This experience is known in science as distress. Therefore stress can lead to both positive and negative reactions.
Summarising everything up
What would your therapist want you to keep from all this?
- Stress is a series of biological reactions.
- Stress is part of life. Being alive means being able to notice the effects stress has on my mind and body.
- Stress can lead to both negative and positive experiences, emotions and behaviors.
- Stress cannot go away (again, it is a sign of life) but there is always a way to manage it.
If you would like to get help to understand more how you can manage stress, feel free to book an appointment here.