Why some stress is good for us
By Dr Rebecca Brady, Medical Director at HCML and GP
Stress can motivate us, increase our energy and keep us more focused. We know that it can help us meet daily challenges, both at work and play as well helping us reach our goals and ultimately making us smarter, happier and healthier. In fact, too little stress can lead to boredom and depression.
But too much stress, however, can cause anxiety and poor health. We are not robots, and the body has a finite capacity for maintaining this state. When we reach that point, this is when there is a sudden ‘fall off the cliff’ or ‘nosedive’ into territory of burnout. There are levels of stress that are manageable but it’s important that we know what to look out for when it’s all becoming too much, including signs, symptoms and typical phrases people might use.
We can all appreciate times when we are feeling stressed. Typically, this might manifest in physical or psychological symptoms such as faster heart rate, increased breathing rate, sweaty palms or feeling on edge with an inability to relax. These symptoms generally come from the body’s release of adrenaline. This allows us to develop and maintain focus on a goal and motivates us to carry on and increases our release of energy stores to maximise our potential during an acute period of stress. We call this the ‘fight or flight reaction’.
Sometimes this stress is good for us. It motivates and that ‘shot’ of adrenaline can push us to achieve great things. Putting ourselves under a manageable level of stress can be setting ourselves goals to achieve, milestones to accomplish and that increased heart rate can really spur us forward and keep us excited.
However, a heightened state of stress over a long period of time, either one stressful experience which is ongoing, or repeated in quick succession, can lead to a chemical reset in the body. When this happens, as well as generating adrenaline, the body starts producing higher levels of cortisol which can lead to more sustained problems.
There are physical signs of this happening. You may experience intense fatigue, loss of libido, hair loss and headaches to name just a few. Our cognitive instincts are also impacted. These high levels of stress can cause memory problems, poor concentration, negative and muddled thinking as well as finding it difficult to make decisions. When we have prolonged periods of stress, we might find that we eat more or sleep less, self-neglect or even turn to alcohol, drugs, or smoking. All these factors can have a huge emotional impact too and can eventually lead to a loss in confidence, anxiety, depression, and periods of overwhelm.
Over time, chronic stress can lead to the very distressing and sometimes incapacitating state of ‘burnout’. This is when you no longer have the capacity to care or engage. You may experience feelings of energy deletion or exhaustion. At work, you may find that there is an increased mental distance from your job and have feelings of negativity or cynicism towards it. This often leads to reduced efficiency in the workplace. The problem is that burnout does not happen suddenly and is often a gradual change in a person. It is important for managers and colleagues to be alert to the signs of stress and offer help and support, or alert someone who can.
Recognition of the symptoms and signs of burnout are often hard at the time it is happening, and why burnout often happens suddenly. Having awareness of risk factors which will be individual to us all is key.
Life today is busy, hectic, and more fast-paced than it has ever been, and we are simply not built for it. Several features of today’s society can lead to increased stress levels which people need to be aware of and take steps to mitigate. These include social media and the comparisons we make with each other as a result, whether that be physical appearance, a constant 24-hr barrage of information from different feeds, or presenteeism at work.
Hybrid working also brings its challenges, with people finding it difficult to switch off or change from work to leisure time. I find that in my clinical practice the ‘sandwich generation’ are most at risk, juggling work commitments with caring responsibilities for both young and old, as well as perhaps facing personal challenges such as menopause, all at the same time. Combine this with the financial pressures we are seeing with the cost-of-living crisis, and this creates a perfect storm.
Strategies for managing excess stress and burnout may include attention to diet, exercise and nutrition as well as mindfulness practices. But businesses also have a role to play in supporting all individuals who are at risk of stress, by providing well-being programs to staff including financial and taking measures to support the physical and mental health of their workforce.
Taking all of this in mind, consider what factors in your life might be causing you stress and what techniques and strategies you already use to help manage stress. Perhaps there are things suggested in this article that might be important to consider.
Many of us take a preventative and proactive approach to our physical health – shouldn’t we be doing the same for our mental health and stress levels as well?