Stress is very definitely ‘out there’, and it seems it is becoming more and more acceptable to admit to suffering from stress. I think this is a huge step in the right direction, and is hopefully a move towards removing the stigma surrounding mental health in general.

There is however a downside to this upsurge in conversations about stress. Now that there is such a plethora of information across the media, how do we know what is fact and what is fiction? Read on!

1. STRESS IS THE SAME FOR EVERYONE: FICTION. Stress is the body’s response to a perceived threat. Every individual will react in a slightly different way, dependent on many different factors: it is NOT a case of one-size-fits-all. Our reactions to stress are dependent on genes, life experiences, temperament, culture…and the list goes on. Equally the actual physiological response can differ in the individual: “there is considerable variation in level and type of hormones released by different people and in response to different stressors – [it is] not a simple physiological process”


2. STRESS CAN MAKE YOU PHYSICALLY SICK: TRUE. The stress response creates both behavioural and physiological reactions, hence the symptoms related to stress are many and wide-ranging. The involvement of hormones is key here: our hormones need to be in balance for the body to thrive. If we define stress as “any force that disturbs the natural equilibrium of the body” we understand the potential for stress to stop the body from thriving. Meanwhile chronic (ongoing) stress can lead to adrenal fatigue, whereby depletion of the adrenals and the HPA axis takes the body way out of balance, and potentially on the road to a myriad of health problems.

3. STRESS IS ALWAYS BAD FOR YOU: FICTION. Most of us can picture situations (perhaps leading up to a sport event or a work presentation) where our adrenalin races, our heart beats a little faster, our palms get a little sweaty…and then we go and perform really well. The stress response strengthens connections between neurons in the brain and boosts brainpower. Short term stress boosts the immune system, and can motivate us to succeed (imagine yourself working to a deadline – for some this is a huge motivator to keep going and to do well). Meanwhile dealing with a stressful situation can make us more resilient as it helps us to learn to deal better the next time around.

4. YOU MAY BE STRESSED EVEN IF YOU DON’T SHOW ANY PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS: TRUE. This goes hand in hand with the fact that stress is not the same for everyone. If you are a ‘coper’ you may show less outward signs of stress, even though the hormonal changes are still eating away at you on the inside, and still need to be addressed. Equally, use of medication or inappropriate behaviours (such as misuse of alcohol, nicotine or other drugs, or even excess use of caffeine) can mask symptoms. It must be understood that this can create its own dangers: it is important to be fully aware of any symptoms so that they can be addressed. Masking symptoms “may deprive you of the signals you need for reducing the strain on your physiological and psychological systems”. Lastly, we should remember that these sorts of habits tend to ‘up’ the negative impact that stress is already having on the body (we feel jittery, we have difficulty sleeping, blood pressure can be affected).

5. IF YOU ARE STRONG YOU WILL SIMPLY “GET OVER IT”: FICTION. Stress can create anything from minor headaches or skin complaints to high blood pressure and heart issues. These will not simply ‘go away’ unless the underlying stress is addressed in some way. “Admitting that you need help…doesn’t make you broken. It makes you fixable. And teachable”.
The one fact that is consistent throughout this is the need to be aware of and to address stress. Positive stress management techniques which are considered and appropriate to the individual can start to at least ease any complaints and start the body on the road to recovery…

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