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First and foremost, without this ability to feel stress, humankind wouldn’t have survived. Our cavemen ancestors, for example, used the onset of stress to alert them to a potential danger, such as a sabre-toothed tiger. Your ancestral response to an impending threat was to: Fight it, run away from it, or to stand motionless in hopes the hungry carnivore would pass by without noticing. Hence, the Fight-Flight-Freeze nomenclature. Over eons of evolution, this response has become genetically ingrained into your very DNA.
Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.
The challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations. When blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee, brain function is minimised. This can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’; a state that is a great hindrance in both our work and home lives. If we are kept in a state of stress for long periods, it can be detrimental to our health. The results of having elevated cortisol levels can be an increase in sugar and blood pressure levels, and a decrease in libido.
Stress isn’t avoidable but it is manageable. A key action in order to minimise risk is to identify stress-related problems as early as possible, so that action can be taken before serious stress-related illness occurs.
One of the difficulties with stress is that people experience stress in different ways. This contributes to stress manifesting itself differently. So it would be wrong to over generalise when giving advice on how to identify stress in others. However, what we can say is that because stress has negative effects, it will usually manifest itself one way or another.
These changes may be emotional, physical or behavioural, or a combination of all three. So, the key thing is to look out for negative changes of any kind. Bear in mind that the negative changes are also likely to have knock-on effects e.g. reduced performance at work.
For Stress Awareness Month, we plan to further explore the effects of stress, the impact it has day-to-day and how we can help reduce stress in our daily lives, we will be producing an interview series with a number of highly qualified counsellors and professionals in the mental health industry. So be sure to keep an eye out for all the amazing thoughts and advice coming soon!