Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life. They are our body’s way of protecting and defending ourselves from the danger of an outside threat. This physiological response is an essential and helpful primitive bodily response that has been with us since the beginning of our species – it is what has enabled us all to survive.
What happens when we are stressed?
When we are threatened or feel afraid our body responds by producing hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) which trigger physical changes inside our bodies: our heart rate increases, we start to breathe more rapidly, blood is diverted to our outer muscles, our skin goes pale, we start to perspire. All these changes have a positive function: they are signs of our body marshalling its resources to protect and defend us. Taking in more oxygen, by breathing faster, helps the heart pump our blood faster around our body and that blood is diverted from non-essential bodily functions (like digestion) to our skeletal muscles which need energy to either fight off the threat or run away from it: this is the famous “fight or flight” response.
Some stress can be positive. The sensations we feel when we are stressed are similar to those we experience when we are happy, excited or motivated: we feel nervous or have ‘butterflies’ in our stomach when we are attracted to someone of the opposite sex, our heart races when we fall in love, we experience feelings of elation when we ‘win’ or perform well.
We also feel stress or anxiety when we are faced with a challenge – hence the phrase ‘stage fright’. The stress response becomes a problem when we perceive ourselves as being unable to cope or deal successfully and effectively with the ‘threat’ or demand or our stress response is being regularly and continuously triggered.
When stress becomes a problem
This positive, primitive survival response can also therefore have negative effects in our lives today leading to emotional, physical and psychological distress. Whilst in our modern life we are less subject to the life-threatening events which this response was designed to protect us from (running away from a tiger, for example), we have not ‘evolved’ an alternative, more appropriate, bodily response to deal with the kind of situations and demands we are now faced with.
We respond to different types of threat (challenge, pressure, regular daily demands) with this same bodily response and that response unfortunately does not adequately or appropriately deal with the threat:
- We cannot run away or fight with our boss if we feel angry at an unreasonable workload, are afraid of being dismissed, or of not being promoted.
- We cannot fight a room full of strangers if we have hidden fears, doubts or beliefs that we may not be “good enough”.
- We cannot fight or run away when we are stuck in traffic and late for an important meeting.
- We cannot fight or run away when we are stuck in the supermarket queue with a trolley full of groceries or caught in a traffic jam whilst driving to pick our young children up from school.
What determines how we respond to stress?
Whilst the physiological stress response is universal researchers have found however that there are differences in when and how that stress response is triggered: our physical stress response is triggered by our thoughts and perceptions.
All our brains are ‘hardwired’ to respond to certain intense ‘stimuli’ likely to threaten our survival – like when we jump instinctively when we hear a loud noise, or our universal fears of spiders, snakes etc which movie makers prey on. In these instances the brain is wired to trigger the stress response instantly, and instinctively, without ‘processing’ the event or assessing its threat to us.
In other less dangerous circumstances however when we see or perceive an event or ‘stimulus’ in the outside world our brain assesses it quickly. If our brain interprets the situation as being a threat it immediately responds by sending messages to other parts of our brain which instantly release hormones which trigger chemical reactions. The release of these chemicals causes the changes in heart rate, breathing etc making up the stress response with all its accompanying uncomfortable sensations.
This is why people react differently to stress. One person thrives on working under pressure, displaying increased motivation and the ‘will to win’ whereas another becomes overwhelmed and starts to suffer the ill-effects of stress. Our response depends on two factors:
1. How we perceive and interpret the external situation and the demands that are made on us
2. Our judgement of our own resources and ability to cope with those demands
The difference between our interpretation of our resources/ perceived coping abilities and the level of demands that we feel we are under defines how much stress we feel.
Effects of stress
Continued long-term stress which remains untreated , maybe due to a lack of awareness, can suppress the immune system, making you more susceptible to cold and flu germs, and can cause long-term health problems and lead to depression, anxiety, headaches, muscle pain, digestive problems (IBS), allergies, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease and menstrual problems. The onset or upsurge of stress symptoms we suffer is thought to be related to the level of control we feel we have over our lives.
Hypnosis can improve health and well-being by boosting your immune system!
By understanding how your body works under stress and what triggers your stress response you can start to consciously take back control of this response and make changes in your life. Working with relaxation, hypnotherapy and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) I can help you improve your health by boosting your immune response, increase your ability to relax reducing both your stress response and the negative physical and mental effects of stress, and help you learn to deal more effectively with any ongoing or unavoidable “stressors” in your life.
For more information about my Stress Management Programme, contact me now.