Stress is a normal function and, at times, stress can be very useful. For example, when we are facing an imminent threat (for instance, if we are crossing the road and there’s a car barrelling towards us, or if someone is trying to attack us) we go into fight-or-flight mode. When this happens, our body secretes an extra burst of adrenaline, and we are better able to remove ourselves from danger, as quickly as possible. In emergency situations, stress can help us to stay safe by helping us to get ourselves quickly to a place where we are not in danger.
In terms of our health, however, chronic stress can cause and/or aggravate health problems of all sorts. Basically, when we have chronic stress, we are in fight or flight mode all the time. That means that our bodies are making high levels of adrenaline and other hormones associated with stress, such as cortisol, even when there is no immediate risk to our well-being. In other words, our heart rate accelerates, our muscles tense, and we are alert to the risk of potential danger, even when there is absolutely no need for it!
All of this this puts our bodies under enormous pressure. If we already have an underlying health condition like diabetes, asthma, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia (or many more), our symptoms are likely to be worse, which can in turn lead to yet further stress. Addictive conditions like alcoholism, abuse of other substances, and over-eating can all be made much worse by stress, and all of those problems are a challenge to our health as well, in a variety of ways.
Psychologically, chronic stress can be very damaging too. We may find it hard to sleep well, and struggle with tiredness all day. Our temper is likely to be bad, and we may find ourselves snapping and lashing out at the people we care about, which can lead to or exacerbate problems in our personal relationships. The more difficult things become, the greater the pressure on our self-esteem, and if our self-esteem is knocked, we can spiral into a pattern of ever greater stress and poor emotional and physical health.
The good news is that there are many ways in which stress can be treated. Simple approaches like getting more exercise can make a surprisingly big difference, as can mindfulness techniques and psychotherapy. There is no one size fits all approach, and each person with stress has to find their own way towards greater happiness and personal satisfaction. It may not always be possible to eliminate all of the sources of our stress, but if we can remove or reduce at least some of them, all the better. In terms of psychotherapy, many patients find that techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy are very useful in both the short and the long term. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people by focusing on the ways in which they can identify the triggers to problematic behavior and then develop techniques to help them to manage it more effectively. While this can yield good results in the short term, over time these techniques become second nature, and the patient can become incrementally better at handling negative emotions in an effective way.
As our levels of chronic stress improve, we are likely to find improvements in our physical health too. Some health problems might never go away, but symptoms will be less severe and more manageable, and with a happier, sunnier outlook, we will find that they cause fewer problems in our daily lives because the symptoms are less intrusive than they are in a stressful context.
Chronic stress is a common feature of modern living, but we don’t have to just put up with it. There are many things we can do to improve the situation, and a suitably qualified psychotherapist can also tailor an approach specific to our personal needs that will help us in the short term, and as we continue our journey through life.
WHO CAN I SPEAK TO FURTHER ABOUT THE ISSUES IN THIS ARTICLE?
For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.