Many of the symptoms of stress are similar to anxiety, and people will often be medicated to deal with anxiety rather than seeking out the stressors in their life and learning how to deal with them.
The Mayo clinic outlines the symptoms of stress clearly. Anxiety, and even depression, can be symptoms of stress. That is, the stressors in your life may be the cause of your anxiety or other conditions, rather than the other way around.
Do any of the the following sound familiar?
Common effects of stress on your body
- Muscle tension or pain
- Chest pain
- Change in sex drive
- Stomach upset
- Sleep problems
- Lack of motivation or focus
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Irritability or anger
- Sadness or depression
- Overeating or undereating
- Angry outbursts
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Tobacco use
- Social withdrawal
- Exercising less often
We know that there is a significant physical aspect to stress. When we react to stress, our bodies perceive threat and immediately go into "fight or flight" mode. A work deadline obviously won't eat you, however our bodies have the same response regardless. We're automatically trying to respond to an emotional stress with a physical response and a physical solution. Yes - very helpful.
It's also been discovered exactly how men and women differ in response to stress. When stress hits, the hormones cortisol, and epinephrine are released into the body. They cause an increase in blood pressure and allow more sugar into the blood. Cortisol also reduces our immune system. It used to be thought that women produced more cortisol and that was the cause of an emotional reaction to stress.
Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, explains that in fact there's no difference in the amount of cortisol dumped into the body, but what happens with a third hormone, oxytocin, is completely different. Women produce a lot more of it in stressful situations countering the production of cortisol and epinephrine, promoting nurturing and relaxing emotions. It allows women to immediately talk through their problems, and search out allies to connect with - a useful strategy when dealing with emotional stress.
For men, however, not so. We get stuck with a desire to run or become aggressive, or just... to do something. Of course, a very unhelpful way to deal with the emotional stressors of current life.
In fact, men become shut down, focussed, harder to talk with, irritable. Not only does it make them unpleasant to be around, but it often exacerbates stress and generally leaves men feeling shame around their behaviour, and hopelessness at not being able to withstand stress "like a man."
1. Consider what is the stress, and what is the stressor.
Stress is your response/meaning to a stressor, and a stressor is something you have no control over - something external to you.
To break that down even further, A stressor is something that comes from the outside. It may be a work deadline, it may be a family dispute, or simply that there's so much to get through in your week that it's actually not possible to do it all. None of that is your fault, and you're not responsible for it. It's not a part of you, and is external to you.
How you respond to or react to a particular stressor however, is the key. For most people, the response to a stressor is to take it personally, to take it as a given that you are now responsible for, regardless of where it comes from or how realistic the task or situation is.
What is/are the stressor(s) in your situation? How do you react?
2. Work out what stress means to you.
We typically react to things such a stress in a habitual way, with no thought to the situation. When overwhelmed by an emotional stressor, men especially feel a need to act, and when that doesn't work, there's a feeling of inadequacy, of not being good enough, that you should be able to deal with the stress because that's what proper successful men do.
What does your experience of stress mean to you? Inadequacy? Failure? Proof that you're not good enough? Shouldn't I just be able to manage my stress?
3. Identify ways you've dealt with stress successfully in the past.
Following on from point 2 is this vital piece of self-reflection. There are likely stressors to which you respond well, that you do overcome, and that hold for you a different meaning. That may be the tension of the sporting field, overcoming a complicated situation with your teenager, or some other part of your life that actually you do deal with a stressor well.
Think on those stressors, and what it is you do to cope, and what that means for you. You may well be able to replicate your success in other areas as well. Perhaps you're not such a universal loser after all! Perhaps you feel a sense of pride or achievement at those times.
4. Work out how stress triggers you.
Now you're on the way to becoming aware of the difference between your response to a stressor and the stressor itself. You've identified the kinds of stressors that you react to in a way you don't like, and those you react to in a way you prefer.
Next is to work out just how that stressor manages to sneak in and push your button(s!) so easily. This step is powerful as not only have you identified the kind of stressor that you're confronted with, but you will begin to develop the ability to block it in its tracks, preventing it from reaching your giant red button.
This is also the hardest step. Practice in breathing techniques is vital at this stage as that will assist you to gain control over your limbic system. You're aiming for psychological awareness, and physical mechanisms to control your reaction. See? You can react to an emotional stressor by doing something.
5. Who are you now in relation to stress?
As you move back and forward through the steps, you may notice your self as having a different relationship to stress. What does stress mean to you now? How do you see stress in your life? Is your response to stressors now the one you prefer? Do stressors have a hard time getting to your button?
Think on the meaning of all of this for you. What does stress now mean to you?
It's also very important to note that "stress" isn't necessarily bad, and can in fact be highly motivating, helping in our lives in many ways. Identifying those stressor that we actually like, that help us be who we prefer to be, can be a wonderful offshoot to working on your response to stress.