Do the following physical symptoms sound familiar?
- Muscle Tension
- Difficulty sleeping and/or frequent waking
- Stomach and digestive issues
- High blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Fast heart rate
These are the physical symptoms of stress, something most of us are familiar with to some extent. Stress is such a normal part of our culture and every day experience, that we do not even question how unnatural it really is. From an evolutionary perspective, stress was caused by a threat…like encountering a lion in the wild. We experience the lion, and our body triggers a flood of neurochemicals and hormones to help us survive the threat.
Many of us know of this as the fight or flight response. First epinephrine sends blood to your muscles, gluticorcoids push you into motion and endorphins are released so your attention shifts from the discomfort of the situation into action (1). Your heart works harder, pumping blood through your body (and increasing your blood pressure as a result). Every muscle in your body and your brain focus their attention and resources on the threat and your survival.
Your body is pretty amazing right? All of this happens without you knowing or thinking about it! The problem is that in order to turn your body into the fight or flight machine it needs to be in that moment, it has to shut down other systems like your digestive system, immune responses and even healing. In fact stress has been found to slow down the healing of wounds by as much as 25% (2). This response is fine in the short term, but as a daily occurrence? That takes a toll on your body leading to chronic illnesses.
The other problem is that most of us are not stressed by the possibility of lions attacking us, rather it is the everyday stress of a job you do not enjoy (or do enjoy but work too much at), unemployment and searching for a job in a pandemic, spending the majority of your day on obligations, or it is the fact that you are cooped up in your condo every single day for over a year. The lion is not going away here. Nor can you run or fight the lion.
So what happens next? That fight or flight response remains as a low level of chronic stress, showing up in physical symptoms like headaches, high blood pressure, stomach aches. Your body is telling you: “deal with me, manage your stress, help me function like I am supposed to.” This takes two things- 1- managing the source of your stress and 2- completing the stress cycle to remove the physical sensations of stress.
The first, involves sitting down, taking stock and thinking about what kind of chronic stress you are living with. Are you telling yourself that you can survive how you are currently feeling for just a little longer? Are you buying into the concept that you can “power through” anything? Neither is true, stress will take its toll, your body will louden its cry for help, until eventually you are forced to stop- altogether.
This is the reason you get sick after completing a stressful project and instead of enjoying the downtime you were looking forward to, and end up stuck to your couch regaining your health.Your body always tries to regain its balance. While you may be able to power through today, know that the stress response is around the corner.
Now, some of you may be thinking that it is not possible to change your circumstances. You may be right, but you always have choices, just not the ones that you may have hoped for. The first step is creating boundaries- separate your workspace, turn your phone off after a certain time, do not answer that neighbour that causes you unnecessary stress, tell your partner that you simply must go to couples therapy to feel happier in this relationship .
If you cannot see a way to change your circumstances, consult a therapist. Managing stress, creating boundaries and helping you understand how stress has impacted your life are probably the most common topics of therapy I come across with my clients. My biggest advice is to talk to a Psychologist about your stress, not just a GP. Changes have to be made in your life as well. Do not wear your stress like a badge of honour.
Secondly, manage your stress: mentally and physically. The best ways to do this are:
30 minutes of exercise: Choose what makes you happy
Get outside: 20 minutes outside boosts your mood and lowers daily stress
Focus on your breathing: look up breathing techniques on YouTube or head to my instagram at instagram.com/mindwell_kl.
Reach out for social connection: call a friend, a family member. It can be someone you talk about your stress to but it doesn’t have to be. It is ok to to focus on something else entirely that causes you relief.
REST: Never sacrifice your sleep. You will be a better person for it.
Engage in activities for you or your family. I know this is easier said than done in this pandemic. Activities provide you with meaning, put your stress in perspective and connect you to a network of support with like minded individuals.
Here is an example, incorporating several elements of the above list. Try an online dance class: Resonate Dance Company offers some of the most diverse and exciting classes in the Mont Kiara area. Connect with others through movement, get to know people and most of all- accomplish several of the above steps at one time. Then move to in person classes as you become more comfortable and the MCO rules loosen up Click here. Dance doesn’t have to be your thing, but think creatively about what you can engage in- sports, cinema, art? Anything can be outlet if it feels like it refreshes you. Rest is not always passive, often it is active.
If you are experiencing distress or want to improve your well being, please reach out to me to book a session over Zoom or in person. I can be reached by WhatsApp at +60125472408 or at Cassandra@Mindwell.biz. I am a Clinical Psychologist with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology who sees both individuals and couples in Mont Kiara, KL, Malaysia.