Stress is Bad, but…

Do you ever get the feeling that the world is going faster and faster and that you are running to keep up? Technology is out-dated almost as soon as it hits the shelves, work deadlines and targets seem to be getting less and less realistic, and stress is an almost constant companion. Even at home, the TV and radio feeds us ever more worries in the shape of bad news about the economy, wars and the environment. You end up feeling constantly depressed, tired, and out of love with your life.

The truth is, our nervous systems were not designed to cope with so much stress in so many forms. Period. Our natural stress response is to flood our bodies with ‘stress’ hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin in order to get our hearts to beat  faster and divert blood to the right places for us to either fight or make a quick getaway from a dangerous situation (think sabre tooth tiger!). However, this response is also designed to only last for enough time to see us to safety. Then another chemical jumps in to calm those ‘stress’ hormones right down. Ok, I know this is simplifying it a bit (for all you medical buffs out there) – but basically this is what happens… or should happen.

However, today sources of stress come at us from all directions – emails, deadlines, conflicts with work colleagues, driving to work – even watching a violent drama on TV or playing an action video game. Our brain still has not learned to tell the difference between fictional danger and real danger and still releases the hormones that prepare us for flight or fight. And so, more often than not, we are in a constant state of arousal, constantly dealing with an overdose of ‘stress hormones’ – and having to contend with all of that simply leads us to burn out.

Stress can be Good Too!

But, of course, it is never as simple as that. Everyone reacts to stress differently, some more negatively than others. Some even seem to thrive on being revved up all of the time. Individual biology and genetics are always at the bottom of these differences, but new research has also shown that people who regard stress in a negative way have worse reactions to it than those who embrace it. So, yes, psychology has a part to play too. In addition, acute episodes of stress have been shown to increase plasticity in the brain. In other words, your brain learns and grows from short stresses, for example, when you do something out of your comfort zone like abseiling or zip-lining. So, not all stress is bad.

Using Helpful Tools to Manage the Bad Stress

For those people who do suffer – and they in no way should be considered ‘weaker’ than those who thrive on it, there are tried and tested ways to help. Here are some that seem to work really well:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Exercise
  • Walking in nature or gardening
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBD)
  • Making things (baking, crafting, etc.)

At the end of the day, the important thing is to take responsibility for what is going on in your life. Reduce sources of stress as much as possible, learn what makes you feel worse, and the signs that you need to take time out. Find methods (such as those above) to help. The field of neuroscience is expanding rapidly with new discoveries being made all of the time. I hope to bring you as many ways to improve your mental health in this blog as possible.