Many people are plagued with stress. For people with complex disorders, with both physical and mental health problems, managing stress is the key to a better life! 

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Here you can read about stress, about what happens in the body, how stress becomes chronic, and what you can do to break out of the vicous stress cycle.

This article is based, among other things, on a lecture by psychologist Henrik Børsting Jacobsen during a specialization course in clinical social psychology in the spring of 2012.

Many people who drop out of working life have complex disorders, where there are often both mental and physical illnesses or ailments at the same time - including some who have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). An important approach to understanding when you have problems functioning in everyday life and work is about stress.

 

What is stress?

Various researchers have taught us a lot about what stress is for something. Cannon introduced the term "Fight or flight", and showed that in the body there is a constant regulation of the stress level in the body. Stress regulation takes place automatically in the interaction between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system ensures that we are activated, while the parasympathetic "fights against" and ensures that we relax / calm down. 

Normally, therefore, through everyday life we ​​will naturally switch between feeling stressed and feeling relaxed. 

However, there are many conditions that can interfere with the body's natural regulation of stress. Hans Selye researched stress, and used rats as experimental animals. His research was brutal for the rats: In some experiments, he exposed the rats to horrible things, and studied how this affected the stress level in the rats. He defined stress as a "general response to a diffuse danger".

As long as one enters expecting something stressful, is actually exposed to something stressful, or shortly after the stress has occurred, the body will have this "general response" which we call stress.

 

What happens in the body during stress?

 


  1. Movie: What is stress and how to de-stress? 

     

Stress involves a number of bodily changes. What happens in the body is that the brain sends out signals that cause certain types of hormones / substances to be sent out in the body. One of these drugs is cortisol. As long as cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, this leads to both changes in the blood circulation, decreased metabolism, and a hyperfocused attention. 

This in itself can be both positive and negative. The positive thing about the stress response is that the person is put in a "fight-flight" mode, which makes you "ready" to act! Stress enables you to perform, and you will automatically have stress in your body when you have to do something that is difficult and that requires you to make an effort!

 

Stress can lead to anxiety

At the same time, stress can quickly become something negative. This can be, for example, when you experience that it is too difficult, in other words: that you do not have an expectation of being able to master it. Then the stress becomes uncomfortable, and can actually be experienced as anxiety.

Nevertheless, you should remember that what you experience is "merely" stress. It is merely the "fight-flight" response is turned on, which is completely natural (and completely harmless). However, due to frightening thoughts / interpretations, the whole bodily reaction is experienced as negative , unmanageable, and perhaps as proof that "something is wrong with me".

In this context, we understand that anxiety treatment is largely about getting a different view of one's own reactions.

Anxiety treatment is largely about understanding what is happening in the body during stress, and learning to think differently about this while the stress response is on. One must learn to think in ways that become less frightening, and which may provide opportunities for mastery. One must learn to "face" the difficult, as opposed to avoiding it.

In short: Stress is completely natural, but with a misinterpretation of the stress response, the stress is experienced as anxiety.

 

Stress can cause you to never calm down

Another way that stress can become negative, and which cannot be treated as "easily" as anxiety, is when the stress becomes prolonged - that is, when the body is never able to "calm down" again after experiencing stress.

When the "fight-flight" response (stress response) persists over time, changes may occur in the body.

Continuous stress can develop through what we call an allostatic overload. This means that the stress response is prolonged. In practice, this means that we are stressed in advance of the difficult things that are going to happen; while it is going on; and that we also maintain the stress afterwards, for example by pondering / thinking about being unsuccessful. In the worst case, this leads to "never" calming down - that is, the stress becomes chronic.

With chronic stress, the body begins to create its own regulatory system. This can happen, among other things, in what we call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In such a condition, one experiences being "constant" in emergency preparedness (constantly having the stress response turned on).

Some researchers believe that a continuous high level of stress can affect our genes, and therefore have a triggering effect in relation to both physical and mental disorders, including cancer or depression.

This emphasizes the importance of getting help to reduce stress, once one has entered a state of chronic stress.

 

  1. Did you know that physical exercise can cleanse the body of stress substances?

    Swedish researchers believe they have found the answer to why exercise works so effectively against depression: When muscles are used, the blood is cleansed of a substance that is harmful to the brain, and which is triggered in the body when we are stressed.

 

How does chronic stress develop?

There is a lot that can be helpful if you experience chronic stress. Cognitive activation theory about stress is an ingeniously simple model, which can give us useful information about what can help us calm down and become less stressed. This theory states that stress occurs in the following ways:

When we first become stressed, it is our thoughts / experiences of being able to master what caused the stress, which determine how quickly the stress reaction disappears. If we have an experience of not being able to cope with the situation we are in, this will contribute to a prolonged stress reaction.

Any stimulus (eg a situation, a task to be completed, a visual impression), will be perceived in a completely personal way by the person experiencing it, and will for some lead to stress, while for others it does not trigger stress. When we first become stressed, it is our thoughts / experiences of being able to master what caused the stress, which determine how quickly the stress reaction disappears. If we have an experience of not being able to cope with the situation we are in, this will create a prolonged stress reaction.

Stress researchers like to emphasize that stress is basically healthy, but that it all comes down to this: coping or non-coping. In an experience of overcoming the stress to which one is exposed, being stressed becomes just like exercising - it only makes us stronger! In the case of an experience of non-mastery, on the contrary, it will lead to a stress effect - it turns into a state of helplessness. Learned helplessness is called this. Such a condition involves a sensitization in relation to stress - that is: we do not become stronger so that we can withstand more stress - we become even more vulnerable to stress. 

In short, this means that (no matter what the stress is), the key to calming down lies in regaining an experience of mastery!

 

How to stress down

There can be many ways to de-stress. Here are some suggestions.

 

Prioritize activities that are just fun

Nowadays we are often busy. We live in a time of bustle, where large parts of the day consist of solving different kinds of tasks. For many, the days are almost just solving tasks - not relaxing. Psychologist Børsting-Jakobsen says that most of the stress we struggle with, we create ourselves, and that some of the moral is this:

We must free up more time to do things that are just fun!

Constantly having too high a stress level, and constantly being in a mode of duty, is something that in the long run can cause a number of subjective health problems, such as pain in the neck or back, or stomach problems. It is important that the individual who has such problems receives the necessary help to better take care of their own needs - to experience an everyday life with meaning, well-being, and coping!

Everyday life consists of many tasks, requirements and expectations. Your life consists of many ideals, dreams and expectations. People who experience a lot of stress tend to not prioritize what is most important. When every task is considered as super important, this is undoubtedly an efficient way to create stress. Often we have to choose, and each choice involves choosing something away. It is important to learn that this is a part of life, and that we are not superhumans. We must be allowed to neglect some tasks, and just take time to have fun.

Some simple principles in everyday life can help you cope with stress in the short term:

 

  1. Think of a balance in relation to what you spend your energy on, so that it does not just become a duty. Learn to prioritize activities just for fun.
  2. Take care of close relationships - put them in your time budget.
  3. Learn some form of mental relaxation. 
  4. A certain amount of physical activity is also good in terms of de-stressing.
 
 

Learn a whole new way of relating to yourself 

In the slightly longer term, finding new ways of thinking, a completely new way of relating to oneself and one's life challenges, will be of invaluable help. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a form of therapy that emphasizes that the way we look at ourselves will to a large extent be decisive for how sick / healthy we become. 

If you want to become a less stressed person, it is crucial that you stop convincing yourself of your inability to cope with everyday life with all its difficulties!

The easy way to illustrate this is to look at the half-full glass: Is it half-full or half-empty? Of course, both are correct, but one way of looking at it ("the half-empty glass") emphasizes the limitations, while the other way ("the half-full glass") emphasizes the possibilities, the positive, the good. 

Just as in this example, language shapes patterns of truths which governs how we behave. One example: If you are convinced that you will get a sore knee after 30 minutes of walking, you will after about 30 minutes be so focused on any pain in the knee that you will feel these pains. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another example: If you think of yourself as a particularly stressed person, a helpless more or less broken person, a terrifying example of a human being, etc. - then this very way of thinking will make you so aware of all your mistakes and lacks, that every day you will have a number of proofs that you are thinking right (cf. "the half-empty glass is actually half-empty!"). 

If you want to become a less stressed person, it is crucial that you stop convincing yourself of your inability to cope with everyday life with all its difficulties! On the contrary, you need to become your own supporter, who is far more concerned with what opportunities you have, than with what limitations you have.

 

When something more is needed to lower stress!

Finally, there may be situations and living conditions that are so stressful that the only way to reduce stress is to do something about the external situation you are in. Control is a key word, and the higher the degree of control you experience, the greater demands you can withstand before you get sick from stress. 

Some situations are doomed to create stress, and research has also been done on which events have the greatest traumatic effect on people. Living in traumatic circumstances, such as being married to a violent man, being subjected to various forms of abuse, being bullied and harassed - all this creates an insecurity that makes the stress response more or less stand in high gear.

It seems wrong to have a stress-reduction focus that resolves around relaxation techniques or new ways of thinking to people in such situations. First and foremost, they need help to regain a sense of control!

This means that a wide range of measures and help can be important for you, depending on what the loss of control is about. Examples of situations that can cause a lot of stress can be poverty, an insecure life situation, bullying, having an overly difficult job, marital problems, difficulties in relation to upbringing, having disabled or particularly demanding children / spouses / family members, substance-related problems in the family, and much more.

No matter what makes you stressed, it is important to know that there is hope that you can calm down, and to experience everyday life as less stressful! 

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Written by

ove heradstveit

Ove Heradstveit

Psychologist, specialist in clinical community psychology. PhD.
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