Articles

August 7, 2018

Do We Overreact or Can Life Indeed be Stressful At Times?

You get home from work, tired and cranky, your head reeling with thoughts of unfinished tasks . . .  You head for the kitchen and find the floor flooded.   You call the handyman, but he’s tied up on another job and can’t come till the following day.  You look up a plumber’s number, then find that the phone has suddenly died … You rush to your mum’s home to pick up your four year old.  She is full of energy and demands your attention then you remember that you have to finish off your work assignment by tomorrow.   Your stress levels are going ballistic. Apart from a very lucky few, everyone experiences days like these – when everything goes wrong.  It’s like, no matter how hard or how fast you run, you just can’t get ahead of yourself. Some of us get more than our fair share of stress inducers – and not just for one day!  There can be illness in the family, tension due to substance abuse, financial pressures, mistrust, infidelity, domestic violence . . .   Such major troubles usually require more than just some friendly advice, but this article is about stressful situations and our responses to them. Some people seem to be able to take stress in their stride, to field difficult or unexpected situations or incidents without batting an eyelid, with not a hair out of place, (don’t you just hate them?!).   Others just get crankier and crankier, feeling more and more inadequate which in turn leads to them feeling crushed, defeated and downtrodden, with little hope of respite.

Fight-or-Flight

Stress involves both psychological and physical elements:  Your mind senses danger and this sets off a primordial sequence of physical responses: basically, your adrenaline surges, and your heartbeat shoots up.   It’s the self-preserving ‘fight-or-flight’ response of our early ancestors, an autonomic reflex that played a very valuable part in the survival of the human race – after all, it did steer us well clear of T Rex and the sabre-toothed tiger!  Act first, think later. However, once our distant ancestors had removed themselves from the immediate source of danger, once that T Rex or sabre-toothed tiger had been sent off to look for an easier meal, their bodies usually had ample time to calm down before the next threat loomed up, but the current speed of our complex modern lives can be relentless and we can be subjected to a whole barrage of stressful events in quick succession – at home, at school, on the roads, at work.  We react to these in different ways, some of us with relative calm, some with explosive outbursts and some with a feeling of hopelessness.  Regardless of type, each of us experiences, to a greater or lesser extent, repetitive bouts of ‘fight-or-flight’ response and, if these are too frequent, our bodies’ recovery time between bouts is diminished, sometimes to the extent that there can be harmful effects on our health, both physically (e.g. high blood-pressure, heart disease), and psychologically (e.g. anxiety, depression).

So who can help?

“A problem shared is a problem halved,” the old saying goes.  Talking about a stress factor undoubtedly helps.  In mild cases, having a confidante – big sister or brother, best friend, parent, clergyman, doctor, hairdresser, manicurist, barman, etc. – can be a source of comfort.  However, more serious cases, if not acknowledged and given due attention, can lead to anxiety or depression.  They can also have an insidious ‘doubling up’ effect by worsening contemporaneous but separate problems.   And this sort of stress is beyond the ‘well-meaning confidante’ stage.   Talking to a therapist can help cultivate a different perception of stress.  It can help us re-evaluate our lives, change our mindset, and thus defuse the stress.  This has been shown to enhance performance and productivity.   Seemingly ‘insurmountable’ problems can be ‘reframed’, allowing us to see life through a different, less threatening lens.   Our new frame of reference redirects our attention, so that we focus less on the ‘danger zone’, and more on how to deal with the broader task at hand, putting these stress factors into perspective while continuing on our life path.

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