A lecturer, when explaining stress management to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked: ‘How heavy is this glass of water?’
Answers called out ranged from 20g to 500g. The lecturer replied: ‘The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.’
He continued, ‘And that’s the way it is with stress management. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on. As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again. When we’re refreshed, we can carry on with the burden.’
Are You Stressed ?
Millions of years ago, our bodies were designed to react quickly to danger. Like wild animals we were on constant alert so we could run or fight if threatened. When your brain thinks your life is in danger it stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol.forming platelets – which has been shown to be linked to heart attacks.
This fight or flight response is incredibly clever and thoroughly efficient. It provides instant energy for 5-10 minutes allowing you to react swiftly to dangerous situations.
These days, many of us live under chronic stress. But our bodies can’t distinguish between late trains, missed appointments, spiralling debt, infuriating work colleagues, family disputes and the truly life-threatening stress it gears up to challenge. So it reacts exactly the same as it’s always done.
The problem with many modern lifestyles is that stress (our ‘perceived threat’) is almost continuous and comes without the natural release that either fighting or fleeing might provide. Unless you do something physical (as your body is expecting you to) all that extra energy, in the form of fat and glucose, has nowhere to go. It must be simply re-deposited as fat. Or worse, where stress elevates blood pressure over an extended period, it can trigger the release of high levels of clot-forming platelets – which has been shown to be linked to heart attacks.
After a stressful event cortisol levels in the blood often remain high for a while, effectively increasing your appetite because your body thinks you should refuel after all this fighting or fleeing. This means people under constant stress quite often feel constantly hungry. Worse, their body urges them to stock up on the foods it thinks will be most useful after all that ‘activity’ – carbohydrates (like sugar) and fats, and high-sugar, high-fat comfort and convenience food many people crave.
There’s a certain comfort in thinking of stress as an external thing: it implies it’s beyond your control, and so not your responsibility.
For many of us this provides the ultimate ‘cop out’ – ‘Of course I’m stressed, I’m self-employed / have small children / work in the public sector and might be losing my job, there would be something wrong if I wasn’t.’
Feeling stressed lets you feel busy, and (if you’re lucky) evokes sympathy from those around you; it also relieves you of the obligation to change. But being stressed also implies that the answer to reducing stress is avoiding that external thing. (‘I can’t cope with changing my work:life balance right now .…. there’s so much more I’ve got to do.’) There’s short-term relief in fleeing a stressful situation for a calm and peaceful one, but if the problem is really how can respond to ‘stressful’ situations. We’re assailed by lifestyle suggestions promising stress reduction: blissful holidays, say, or downshifting to the country. But if you’re using them to avoid things that trigger your negative responses, mightn’t it be wiser to work on your responses instead ?
One to One Coaching can help you manage your response to stress; identify stress points and current unhelpful ways of dealing with – or possibly avoiding – stress. (And since it’s National Chocolate Day on September 13th, did you know that eating small amounts of high quality dark chocolate every day can help too ?)
Oliver Burkeman, This Column Will Change Your Life, The Guardian September 20th 2008
Dr Marilyn Glenville – Fat Around the Middle, Women’s Health Issues
BBC News, How stress triggers heart attack