Happiness is… Understanding our stress reactions

As we have previously discussed, stress is an inevitable part of our lives. Key to moving through these times and staying happy is to find ways to effectively manage the negative stress that we experience. For me, the first step is to understand ourselves and recognise where and how we are. So today I am going to talk about my own experience in the hope that you may find this relatable, or as things to keep an eye on as a preventative measure.

As we know, stress can be experienced in many different ways and to varying degrees. On the positive side, it enables us to survive by keeping us alert and inciting us to achieve. I also find that it enables me to better appreciate the more relaxed times. However, as many of us will know, there are occasions when our levels of stress increase to the point of feeling overwhelmed. This can take its toll on the body and the mind. Understanding how stress affects us can help to manage it effectively, by making better choices to sustain our well-being.

Me

I have come to realise that my body tells me about my stress levels before my brain does. Whilst I may not feel emotionally stressed or anxious, tension builds up in my body, causes discomfort, and that is usually the first indication that something is awry.

The first sign is usually tension in my shoulders and the second is tension in my right arm. This occurs in both my upper arm and my forearm. That is when I know that things are beginning to weigh me down and that I need to start working on management, prevention and relaxation techniques. I actually experienced this again just recently and it was painful. At times, it was like a throb, continuously reminding me to manage how I was dealing with the situation and take care of myself. With relatively low-level issues, physical elements may be the only side effect but at times, other aspects are affected.

Food

Understanding our stress reactions

Depending on how we react as individuals, it can be difficult to eat well during stressful periods. Many people find themselves unable to eat regularly whilst others consume food for comfort. I am a mix of both camps, depending on the severity of the situation. I have talked before within my Slimming World journey posts that lower levels of chronic stress (although they don’t feel that low!) can often lead to what I assume to be comfort eating. For me, it, the mental and physical fatigue affects my eating habits. Because of the stress, I find I reach for tasty, convenience foods. These generally don’t tend to be particularly balanced, thus leading me to feel lethargic, bloated, uncomfortable and frustrated at myself for allowing stress to affect my eating habits.

At the other end of the spectrum, significant stress and anxiety, which, thankfully, is not something I often experience. This can cause me to lose my appetite, which, if prolonged, can lead to weak nails, spots and dry, split and sore lips. It can also lead to higher anxiety. For me, having something to eat certainly helps me to feel more settled.

Sleep

Understanding our stress reactions

Stress can have an effect on both the quality of and our ability to sleep; although for me, the effect is mostly on the quality. As a result, we are encouraged to get more sleep when under stress to fuel our mind and bodies. This usually isn’t a big problem for me as stress, particularly in higher levels lead me to feel like my brain is shutting down and makes me just want to crawl into bed. Potentially this is because I can often think more clearly in the cold (I am in the UK after all!) light of the morning or maybe just that it brings on feelings of exhaustion. As it turns out, I am not alone, as I discovered by reading a particularly interesting article. I have linked the article at the bottom of the page.

However, others aren’t as fortunate and find it difficult to achieve sleep when under significant pressure. Stress and anxiety can lead to a nighttime turmoil when in the dark quiet, the racing thoughts can speed out of control. Either way, understanding how stress and anxiety affect our sleep patterns enables us to seek the support and tools that can help us. I mentioned in a previous post that sleep stories help me to sleep when I find I can’t switch off. You can find more information about them here.

Alcohol

Understanding our stress reactions

How many times have you heard an exasperated claim of ‘I need a drink!’ at the end of a stressful day. I have done it myself and many people I know have agreed that they drink alcohol as a way to relax. Unfortunately, as creatures of habit, alcohol is something that we can become reliant upon during prolonged periods of stress. Aside from the health consequences of regularly consuming alcohol, it can potentially lead us to perform actions we wouldn’t necessarily choose if we weren’t under the influence. Then, the other worry is the prolonged reliance. Sometimes it can creep up on us and become more of an issue before we even realise it. It can be a slippery slope and breaking the habit may not be so easy. However, it is possible.

 

Acceptance is freedom

Understanding our stress reactions

During stressful times, I have found that by accepting the things I cannot change, I have been freed from some of the symptoms of stress. This has meant that I have been able to have move on to happier times. I found an article about how the good and bad aspects of stress and how it can be about perception. Consider this, for example. To one person, a rollercoaster ride is fun and exciting. For another, it is scary, dangerous and stress inducing. Have you considered that you can change the way you think about a situation? Maya Angelou has been quoted as saying ‘If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain’.

Now, I defy anyone to never complain but, in reality, where does it get us? One of the things I have firmly established is that complaining in the right way can assist in achieving change. However, if a change is impossible then complaining only serves to prolong both the situation and the resulting symptoms of stress. Accepting what we cannot change can free us from the torment. It can also increase feelings of positivity and wellness, through the redirection our energy.

So, having considered some of our stress reactions, we can then look at how we can relax, to assist us in getting through those tougher times. Experimenting with ways to relax can help to establish what works for you. I will cover some potential ways to relax, including those that work for me, in future content.

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Links:

Why Some People Respond to Stress by Falling Asleep: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/why-some-people-respond-to-stress-by-falling-asleep/282422

For more information about emotional eating check out this link: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diet-weight-loss/emotional-eating.htm

More information about alcohol in relation to stress and mental health can be found here https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-and-mental-health/

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