The following excerpt is from the ANMF’s Anxiety disorders tutorial on the Continuing Professional Education (CPE) website.
This tutorial explains what stress is and why it’s important to understand it. It also offers some simple and effective tools to help you start doing something about it both for yourself and for those you care for.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. In fact, when working as intended, your stress response can be helpful, even lifesaving. It can get you out of a bind with incredible agility, sharpen your awareness or concentration, or even help you complete a worthwhile exercise session.
However, what can be helpful in small doses can be extremely harmful in large or persistent ones.
What we are not designed for is chronic stress – being constantly chased by tigers (or in our case, deadlines, hostile environments, economic woes, personal conflicts … the list goes on). In fact, our modern world affords us the opportunity to be stressed on an almost constant basis. Physiologically and psychologically, this is not an outcome we can afford to indulge.
The scientific evidence is abundant and persuasive. Living life in the shadow of persistent stress is not a recipe for either health or happiness.
But there is good news. Persistent stress doesn’t have to be accepted as an unavoidable consequence of the 21st century.
Life’s stresses are not going away, but engaging with this tutorial can provide the knowledge, the resolve, and the skill to help you to respond to them in a different way. Changing the way you think about and deal with stress can be life changing. This is an invaluable resource towards achieving this goal.
Stress can be a heavy burden to carry. It has a unique and powerful capacity to affect the way we feel, cope, look, perform, and behave.
Intuitively, we get it. Persistent stress can throw us off balance, make simple challenges seem daunting and cause us to make poor or hasty decisions. It also seems clear that the more stressed we are, the more often we get sick, and the longer it takes us to recover.
Of course, this is not news to you. It’s something we all very much understand and relate to.
Curiously, it took medical science quite some time to devote any rigorous attention to the dangers of chronic stress. Perhaps this has made it a little easier for us to ignore as fact, what we have always understood by intuition.
We no longer have the luxury of that excuse. In recent years, doctors and scientists from have applied themselves vigorously to this area of study. Their findings are both clear and concerning.
Persistently high levels of stress are a serious and an immediate challenge to our health and wellbeing.
The statistics are even more remarkable than you may imagine.
Fortunately, the news is not all bad. Research has also shown that relatively simple techniques can be remarkably effective in reducing stress and the way it affects health and wellness outcomes.
This is both comforting and confounding. If stress can quite fairly be described as an epidemic of the 21st century, and clinical studies have shown there are some simple and effective ways of addressing it, why are we failing to rise to the challenge?
- 75% of all doctor visits are related to stress in some way
- 66% of people believe stress has a visible effect on their physical health
- Hundreds of billions of dollars are lost worldwide due to stress-related illness (Statistics Brain, 2013).
Stress is not just floating around in the air. It is your body’s INTERNAL response to a perceived threat.
The stress response is a ‘red alert’ signal from the brain. A warning that your safety or wellbeing may be at risk.
Whether the danger is immediate and physical:
- Running from an attacker
- Avoiding a falling branch
Or emotional and abstract:
- Speaking in front of people when you’re not used to it
- Waiting for your test results
Your body gets the message that your wellbeing may be potentially under threat. As such, the first priority of the stress response is to make sure your body is primed to defend itself.
The stress response is powerful, single-minded and somewhat inflexible.
The capacity of the stress response to change your physical state is impressive.
So is the speed with which it acts.
You can go from relaxing in a chair listening to the rain, to tearing wide-eyed down the hallway before the thunder crack has even subsided.
It is a powerful, yet somewhat an inflexible tool of self-defence.
When the stress alert sounds in your brain, your body gets a clear and immediate message from upstairs.
Prepare for FIGHT or FLIGHT
Our ancestors didn’t have to apply for jobs or write exams. The speed and power of our stress response developed to protect us from physical threats and was designed to be implemented in short, intense bursts.
It is only in very recent human history that the nature of threats we face has significantly changed. Aggressive physical responses preparing us for ‘battle’ are now rarely appropriate or useful.
Today’s threats are often better described as challenges. While still very real, they are more emotional, abstract and persistent than those our ancestors faced.
The prospect of losing your job, for example is certainly a worthy concern. But starting to sweat, increasing your blood pressure and dilating your pupils is hardly going to help you avoid it.
Passing an exam may be crucial, but halting your digestion, not being able to sleep and directing thoughts from logical to reactive is going to hurt, not help you in your endeavours.
Scientific journals are now littered with detailed studies that link persistent stress with long-term health issues.
Researchers at Penn State University, to pick one, assessed 2,000 individuals over a ten-year period. The team found that subjects who responded in a more stressful way to general daily challenges (high stress responders) were more likely to suffer from serious health problems ten years later (Penn State University News, 2 November 2012).
In short, those subjects who spent more time swimming in a sea of stress hormones were more likely to lose their health in the future.
It’s true that some people are generally more prone to ‘stress’ than others. This can be as a result of our genetic code or the environment we have been exposed to. It is however safe to say that, when it comes to persistent elevated stress levels, ‘less is more’ is likely to be a reality that applies strongly to us all.
When engaged, the stress response is dominant, often at the expense of key functions related to repair, re-balance and regeneration.
When you’re in a calm and relaxed state, your body is designed to respond in a different, yet equally impressive way.
In this state, the body switches its considerable talents to the complex maintenance required to keep your systems thriving. In fact, you would be surprised at how well it can look after itself if given half a chance. When your body is running efficiently, it skillfully regulates countless processes that help keep you calm, healthy and happy.
The Power of Calm tutorial discusses; detailed information on the physiology of stress; recognising symptoms in yourself and others; the impact of stress on performance and how stress contributes to health issues. There is a detailed section on ‘how to address stress’ which includes looking deeply into the biology of stress and the relatively unknown partner of stress, the relaxation response.
The tutorial is supported by videos throughout and access to the Power of Calm app, which is offered at a discount price to ANMF, NSWNMA and QNMU members.