It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog for a while. That’s mainly because I have had my head buried in textbooks. I’ve been doing a course on the science of mental health ie what actually goes on in your brain cells and body when you’re experiencing stress, depression, addiction, dementia and so on. Stress seems to be something that affects most of us, so I thought I’d pass on some useful bits of learning.
Firstly, what do we mean by stress? I think I experienced stress this morning when the guy who started work on the bathroom last week failed to turn up to finish the job for the fourth time. What’s interesting is that we think of stress as A Bad Thing. Actually, the same physiological mechanism whirrs into action whether we experience positive or negative stress. Positive stress might be ‘engaging in a passionate kiss’ (Selye, 1956) or doing a crossword puzzle or playing a challenging game of golf. Emotions are at the heart of stress. You might feel joy (passionate kissing), anger (unprofessional tiler) or fear (forthcoming exams). The body responds in the same biological way.
What distinguishes the positive stress from the negative is how we interpret the event. The golf match would be perceived by many as pleasurable. (I beg to differ: I agree with Mark Twain who felt it was ‘a good walk spoilt.’) A divorce might be a tragic loss or a welcome new start. Hans Selye argued it’s ‘how you take it’ that determines your appraisal.
When you decide that an event is threatening, your brain and body go into overdrive. A sequence of events triggers the release of a group of hormones including cortisol. Cortisol is great for getting you through a presentation that might clinch the deal with a top customer. That surge of cortisol will subside when you sit back down to sign the contract. However, if stress is on-going over a period of time, too much cortisol can be damaging to brain tissue.
So what can we actually do to combat the daily stresses and strains of life?
- Take some exercise. There is evidence that exercise can lower stress and ease pain, anxiety and depression (Otto et al. 2007).
- Challenge your negative thinking. A cognitive behavioural approach in therapy or in coaching can help you to do this. Becoming aware of putting a negative spin on events is the first step towards changing your thinking style.
- The practice of mindfulness (living in the present moment, rather than ruminating on the past or predicting the future) has been shown to reduce stress. Find out more here.
- Build a supportive social network. Having a partner, belonging to a family, group of friends or a community can act as a buffer against stressful events. The neurochemical oxytocin is closely linked to feelings of trust, either trusting another or being trusted. Oxytocin plays a major role in inhibiting the stress response and calms the body’s physiological response (lowering the heart rate and blood pressure). “Social relationships appear to be the greatest single cause of well-being” (Argyle, 2001). Work-life balance is not just a ‘nice to have’. It’s essential.
- Finding meaningful work is important. Money is not a key predictor of job satisfaction. Good relationships at work and the actual content of the work are (Warr, 1999).
- Doing what you love to do is a major influence on how happy we feel. So making time for a favourite hobby or activity, whether it’s sailing, art, running or stamp collecting, is not an indulgence, but a key factor in sustaining happiness and reducing negative stress.