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Stress has become a buzzword of the 21st Century. Ask anyone if they are stressed and they will undoubtedly answer ‘yes’. Fortunately, this is unlikely to be strictly true.

While most people think they know what stress is, the truth is that the concept is actually poorly understood, with many people confusing stress with normal, everyday pressures and worries. The result of this, says Health Psychologist Dr Rosemary Anderson, is that both individuals and organisations are taking the matter less seriously than they should.

True stress

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress is “an adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them.”


Here, pressure is seen as positive and we all actually need a certain amount of pressure to perform well, - ask any athlete, actor or actress. A problem only arises when sources of pressure become too great. We then reach a peak in our performance, beyond which we start to show adverse reactions. At first, we may just be irritable, snappy, make silly mistakes and be unable think clearly. However, if the pressure continues this becomes worse and we can start to exhibit a variety of physical symptoms which can eventually lead to physical illness. We can also show mental symptoms such as anxiety and eventually depression

Causes of Stress

While stress may be the result of one major event such as bereavement, it may be an accumulation of many smaller hassles one after the other without enabling time to recover. It may of course be a combination of the two. More often than not, we also cause our own stress by our thoughts or by our perceptions of a situation.

Why Too Much Pressure turn to Stress

To answer this question it is necessary to understand the stress response. This is an adaptive response which evolved to help our ancestors cope with physical threats such as being chased by a woolly mammoth. This response, often termed the fight or flight response, comprises physiological changes in our body that results in both mental and physical alertness. As such, we are able to run and fight more effectively and hence chances of survival are increased. The stress response is mainly caused by the release of adrenalin and noradrenalin which alongside many other changes result in the common symptoms of dry mouth, sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, butterflies in the tummy. The major changes during the stress response are outlined in the table below.

Major effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline on the body

  • Increase in sensitivity of nervous system – increases speed which we may react to a threat.
  • Muscles tense ready for action
  • Breathing rate increases- to take in more oxygen into the lungs. This is then carried by the blood to the muscles where it combines with glucose to make energy.
  • More glucose is released from the liver and in to the blood stream - used for increased energy
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase – Blood carrying oxygen and sugar is pumped to the muscles to make energy.
  • Sweating increases – to cool body down during running or fighting
  • - Digestive system slows down. – If fighting for survival you don’t need to be digesting food, energy is therefore conserved.
  • Reproductive system slows down – not necessary if you are fighting for survival!!!! So energy is also conserved here.
  • Cortisol is released.

One of the main functions of cortisol is to regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. During stress, it enables the body to produce more glucose to keep it going longer. A by-product of this is the production of fatty acids which can result in increased production of cholesterol. Cortisol also dampens down the immune system so over time we become more susceptible to infections.

While the stress response is still useful for moderns day physical threats, e.g. being chased by an attacker, most of our modern day pressures are not physical and therefore do not merit a physical response. Many are also generated from work. For example the difficult boss, too much work, e-mails, angry customers. We cannot respond to these by running away or fighting so we sit and bottle it up. We therefore do not do what the stress response is gearing us up to do. Added to this is the fact that one pressure comes immediately after another. We therefore do not even get time to get the physiological changes out of our system before the next pressure comes along. We even cause our own stress by our thoughts and fears. We are afraid of not being good enough or looking stupid. Fear of job security is now also very common. Pressures like these never really go away, but are constantly generating the response. Instead of being helpful, the changes taking place in our body start to work against us and we start to suffer from stress symptoms.

Reducing the Effects of Stress

  • Identify causes -only then can you tackle the issues.
  • Analyse your behaviour to see how this can cause you stress. Make necessary changes e.g. avoid unnecessary conflict, learn to be more assertive, don’t procrastinate, and learn to manage your time better. If the stress is work related, raise the issue with your manager.
  • Change your perceptions - look at how your thoughts cause you stress and try to find different ways to see things. For example, you do not always have to be perfect.
  • Talk things over with a friend or colleague this will often help you change your perceptions and behaviours
  • Make sure you take regular breaks- allow your body time to recover between pressures.
  • Learn to relax - Relaxation helps reduce the stress response and hence the detrimental effect.
  • Exercise - This helps you reduce the effects of stress as you are doing what the stress response was meant to enable you to do.

Most of all you must realise that stress is not a weakness. Given the right combination, stress can happen to anybody. If you experience stress, take action to reduce it before it gets too serious. Managing stress is about taking responsibility for yourself. Nobody else can do it for you.

Dr Rosemary Anderson is a chartered health psychologist and runs her own consultancy ApP which helps individuals and organisations reduce stress and improve health and well-being. She has just written an e learning package on this subject. The package is entitled “It can happen to anyone” and can be accessed directly form the ApP web site www.andersonpeakperformance.co.uk

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