Stress: The Good, The Bad, And The Way Out

Stress: The Good, The Bad, And The Way Out

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By Catherine Morgan

We all have some experience of stress and how it can affect body and mind. But despite its bad press, the stress response is a natural and brilliant process that has been necessary to the survival of humankind – if done correctly. As with most things though, too much of a good thing is not always best – and that goes for stress, too. Left unchecked, prolonged or extreme stress can have a detrimental effect on our physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing.

When stress starts to rule our lives, or if it’s making us ill or unhappy, it’s a sure sign we need to make some changes. And with April being Stress Awareness Month, there’s no better time to start.

Stress 101


Stress is a normal and unavoidable part of life. Work, money, relationships, health, traffic, and world affairs can all create and contribute to our daily stress – but not always and not for everyone. Our response to an event or situation often depends on how we perceive it, meaning that one person’s stressor could be another person’s challenge or strength – like driving, exams, public speaking, a house move, or extreme sports, for example.

From an evolutionary perspective, our stress response was a survival strategy, our body’s natural defence against immediate danger or predators. The flood of hormones including adrenalin and cortisol, released in response to the threat, would have enabled our ancestors to evade or confront danger – aka the ‘fight or flight’ response – and thereby improved their chances of survival. But where this response was once helpful for directing energy, attention, and resources to flee from a sabretooth tiger, it isn’t always useful for some of today’s stressors or imaginary threats that don’t warrant such extreme measures – because there’s no need to fight or flee when sitting in traffic, and it isn’t going to help us to have a pounding heart, rapid breathing, or increased blood pressure.

But that’s not to say the stress response is redundant – it’s not. It still helps us react quickly to life- threatening situations, whether that be a moving vehicle hurtling towards us or a dangerous animal nearby; and it could even be used to our advantage to prepare for a challenge, such as an exam, a presentation, or a race, as it can help improve attention, focus, and energy.

However, this emergency system isn’t meant to be constantly activated. Instead, a healthy stress response should be appropriate, acute, and over quickly; and the body should soon return to its natural state. Yet, modern-day stress is often unremitting; it is low level and not life-threatening, and it is continual and chronic – and this can have huge consequences for our health and happiness. In fact, chronic stress may play a role in a whole host of health concerns, from headaches, poor immune function, sleep problems, and fatigue, to gastrointestinal issues, heart disease, metabolic disorders, and depression – and everything else in between.

But if we know that chronic stress is having such a negative impact on us, how do we change it? Life can be a constant barrage of decisions, deadlines, duties, demands, pressure, and stresses, so what’s the solution? Whilst we can’t expect to eliminate all stress from our lives, we can find ways to reduce it and learn how to cope with it – and ideally, we should do both.


Stress-Busting Strategies


For this year’s Stress Awareness Month, the Stress Management Society has launched the #LittleByLittle Campaign, highlighting the power of small, everyday actions in combating stress and improving mental well-being. The non-profit organisation, which is dedicated to helping individuals and companies recognise and reduce stress, suggests the following six actions to add to your daily routine:

  • Connect with someone: Check in with your support network or connect with someone new.
  • Prioritise sleep: Improve your bedtime routine (See Castorvida’s previous blog on sleep).
  • Move in your own way: Use any form of movement, be it walking, running, yoga, stretches or gardening.
  • Spend time in nature: Step outside, get some fresh air and stimulate your senses.
  • Breathe deep: Take time to breathe deep which helps us shift into relaxation mode.
  • Practice mindfulness: Focus on the here and now and practice emotional regulation and control.

These actions are a great start. But there are loads of other simple things we can do to manage our stress burden and response to it, it’s just a matter of finding out what works for us. Here’s another six suggestions:

  • Learn to say no: Being a ‘yes’ person can put us under unnecessary pressure. Whilst some things are beyond our control, there are times when it’s ok to decline an offer, invite, task, or request. This isn’t always easy, but it will help to reduce your stress burden.
  • Switch off negativity: ‘Doomscrolling’ – i.e. mindlessly scrolling through negative news headlines and social media posts – is a habit you should break if you’ already in a stressed, fight or flight state. Switch over to something that brings a happier, more positive mindset, or switch off completely and spend some time with friends or doing something you enjoy.
  • Timing is everything: If a huge to-do list is stressing you out, it can help to get organised. Make a list, prioritise, break big tasks down into smaller more manageable ones, and ask for help if needed. Sometimes our heads are just so full of ‘to-dos’ that we can’t see the woods through the trees – writing it down can give us some much-needed headspace.
  • Eat for stress: When stressed, we might be more inclined to make poorer dietary choices – e.g. more sugar, more caffeine, more ultra-processed food… And to rush down food without thinking, putting unnecessary burden on our digestive system. But it is during stressful periods that our body needs optimum nutrition – so aim to focus less on quick fixes like caffeine, alcohol and chocolate, and more on nutrient-dense (especially B vitamins, magnesium, omega-3 fats, etc.), protein-rich foods that will help support body and mind.
  • Reframing the mindset: Because our fight or flight response is often triggered by perceived stress, as opposed to real, life-threatening threats, we may be able to reframe our thoughts, think more objectively, and change the way we view and react to challenging situations or events. Identify a stressor and see if you can view it through a different lens – does it offer a chance to grow or an opportunity, or has it been misinterpreted, misunderstood, or blown out of proportion? By doing this we can hopefully lessen the impact of some of our stressors on our health.
  • Develop hobbies or interests: Spending time doing things we enjoy can be a great distraction from life’s stresses. If we have little else to focus on, our stressors inevitably get more of our focus and attention, and can become louder and more convincing. But hobbies offer more than a distraction. Some activities can also help minimise the effects of stress and aid relaxation, such as yoga, cooking, music, painting, fishing, reading, swimming or puzzles.

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it shouldn’t define us or harm our health or happiness. Being in a constant fight or flight mode can have far reaching consequences, and it certainly isn’t time or energy well spent, unless we’re in real danger. If stress is taking its toll, it’s time to take action. But remember, small habits can lead to big changes – and your stress-busting strategies shouldn’t be stressful!

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