This article is about what stress is, some of the problems it can contribute to and how to manage it.


What is stress anyway?

This article is about what stress is, and what it means to different people, some of the problems it can contribute to and how you can manage it better. It is a factor in every day life that contributes a lot to many peoples' illness, dissatisfaction or even unhappiness. Stress is often blamed for many of our problems, seen as a modern disease, or cause of disease, endemic in modern life and work. If you work in a city this can be amplified as it is all around all the time.

It first occurred to me to think about what 'stress' means to different people when a client said to me, 'I must be stressed, but I don't feel stressed'. I wondered, if you don't feel stressed, how can you be stressed? Of course it is part of a common language and I'm sure we all know what it means on some level, my point is only that what you mean when you say the word may not be exactly the same as when someone else does.signpost pointing to 'relaxed' and 'stressed in opposite directions against a blue sky

 The way I think that is most useful to think about any kind of stress is the mechanical definition which is about the amount of load a given material can take before it deforms, or ultimately, breaks. This idea can be transposed onto any of the areas in which we commonly talk about stress, stress on the body, psychological stress, emotional stress. And then there is the stressor, the external factor which is causing the stress on us as living beings.

If we are stressed by our working situation it is the load (tasks, interpersonal pressure, working relationships) which raises our stress. If we are stressed emotionally it is the load (personal relationships, ethical dilema's, grief, family) which raises our stress. If it is physical stress it is the load on our body's (hard physical work, inappropriately intense exercise, injury, accidents or just sitting at a desk for too much time out of your day) which raises our stress.

Some of these things we can change and some of them we can't, the trick, or method to managing stress lies in the choice, what you allow yourself to be stressed by, and the choice of what to do about it. In some cases the stressor is an external thing you can do nothing about, thus it falls outside your 'circle of control'. If you allow that factor to become within your 'circle of concern' it is bound to stress you unavoidably. One thing you can do is identify what you can't control and choose not to invest it with your concern, and it is a choice, it may not seem like it but you have a choice.

Another useful way of thinking about the stress response is from an evolutionary perspective. The reason we evolved the hormones and reactions associated with stress, the hormonal and chemical effects, was for the most part in an effort to avoid health or potentially life threatening situations. The fight or flight response. In many animals there is also a freeze response to life threatening situations, where an animal will freeze and play dead. I have seen footage of smaller mammals doing this when a bear/ wolf/ other predator catches up with them, and it's also the 'rabbit in the headlights' situation. One way of looking at this is that in fight or flight we would normally resort to a great deal of physical movement to fight or escape, which burns off or processes the stress reaction. But in the modern world we don't. We stay sat in the office/ stood in the restaurant or other comparable workplace situation and the stress builds and builds.

I would also contend that we freeze, in a way. When we are under a lot of stress it builds and builds, we neither flee nor resort to combat (most of the time) but instead get locked up within our bodies and in our muscles generating chronic tension. Likewise, animals that freeze display a vigorous shaking afterwards when they are safe which serves to restore their muscle tissue and 'burn off' the stress hormones, but we don't do that, again allowing the stress to accumulate in our systems and tension to build in our bodies.

So what to do about stress?

Move more

As stated above the build up of stress hormones in animals is processed by physical activity. Increasing your physical activity is a very important part of managing stress and has, as I'm sure you know, many other health benefits. Getting some exercise into your day is essential, but not just 'exercise' but moving more all the time is useful too. Vigorous exercise  works well but walking, standing, stretching and just not sitting so much all helps too!

Turn off

In our western world anyway we are constantly bombarded by information through our computers, smartphones, TV etc. and while it may not be feasible to drop it all, you can certainly draw a line under it for the day. There is no harm in having boundaries, having a time when you stop working, looking at screens and stop using your phone and checking your email a good while before you go to bed is useful to manage stress. As an added bonus it has been shown to improve sleep quality. Looking at screens activates our visual cortex to the extend it is harder to get to sleep and sleep can be of lower quality as a result.

Stretch & move

Muscle tension also builds up under stress and since most of us sit down for a lot of our working life. Get up every half an hour for 3 mins and you can significantly:

  • Reduce stress
  • Improve your circulation (blood and lymph)
  • Prevent accumulated negative effects of sitting on your body
    1. your blood vessel geometry- contributing to cardiovascular health
    2. your muscles resting length (hamstrings, calves, psoas etc.
    3. compression of your lower back, discs and vertebrae
    4. the position of your head and neck- may also help prevent headaches
    5. the alignment of your shoulders- may also prevent developing RSI
  • Relax your eyes by changing focus
  • you might also communicate with collegues more and make some friends!

Stretch your calves, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors and buttock muscles as frequently as you can. It will also help you stand and sit in better alignment. 

Taiji, Qigong, Yoga, Pilates and many other so-called mind-body activities can play an incredibly useful role in opening up the body, bringing awareness back into our movement, moving the blood around, benefiting our fascia and soft tissues and calming... us... down.