Anyone faced with important changes or new demands may be at risk from stress and stress related disorders.  Stress is part and parcel of the wear and tear of everyday life and cannot be avoided.  Challenges and changes add spice to life, fire the imagination and spur us on to new achievements – if handled in the right way.  It is healthy to learn to respond to high levels of stress in a balanced way.  A ‘victim’ of stress will not adapt to the pressures that someone else might.  This can be because of an inability to do so or that there is no capacity left to cope with it, due to high levels already sustained.

Stress affects the whole person, rather in a holistic way, body, mind, emotions and behaviour.  The symptoms of stress take many forms and present in the body in many ways.  Coping with stress is a continuous task, trying to respond in the best possible way to each new situation.  As each situation is different and brings its own circumstances, there is no one simple method of dealing with it, however experts recommend the following four step approach:

  1. Recognise the Signs.

As the whole body is affected with stress, symptoms can take many forms.  In the physical, most result from increased tension in the muscles, leading to neck pain, lower back pain, headaches, teeth grinding, feeling a lump in the throat, high pitched or nervous laughter, trembling, shaking, a nervous tickle, and twitching or blinking.  If untreated muscle tension can lead to more serious symptoms and disorders such as high blood pressure, migraine, and digestive problems such as IBS.  Other symptoms include a fast pulse, thumping heart, hyperventilation, palpitations, sweating, dryness of the throat and mouth, and difficulty in swallowing, insomnia and other sleep disorders, and there may also be fainting dizziness, a feeling of weakness and lack of energy.  As these are all physical signs they are easily recognisable if you listen to your body, however there are also the emotional signs.  The mind, feelings and behaviour can also be affected as can poor concentration, vague anxiety or fear for no apparent reason, and periods of irritability and perfectionism followed by depression and lethargy are all signs of stress.   Other warning signs include self-destructive behaviour such as eating and drinking too much, smoking excessively, relying on tranquillisers and even being unusually accident prone.

  1. Identify the Causes

Having recognised the signs of stress the next stage is to identify the causes of why you are reacting in a particular way to a situation, which is called a stressor by the medical profession.  These can be anything that throws you off balance, makes demands on yourself whether in the short or long term.  There are two types of stressors, internal and external.  The internal come from within oneself, the pressure we put ourselves under in a particular situation.  This can be completely unintentional, and we can be completely unaware that we are doing this to ourselves.  It usually begins with a worry, e.g. As deadlines approach you begin to worry about how you can cope.  The pressure of Christmas or exams is a very real stress for some.  Other stressors come from the outside, like noisy neighbours, or a constant noise like builders next door, or pressure at work or a baby that will not stop crying.  These can all cause strain.

In addition to this life itself is stressful.  We take on an array of changes in our lives which often can according to the experts, be severely stressful, e.g. move to the other side of the world, get married, move in with the mother-in-law, change of job, and get divorced!  Remember that happy events can be just as stressing as unhappy events.  The arrival of a new baby can bring so much joy and happiness, and often a long awaited arrival, but this too can bring stressful and unpleasant situations, e.g. if the baby is not settling at night, broken sleep, social changes, physical and emotional demands, they are all contributing factors.  This can lead to changed family relationships, additional expenses and worries and altered domestic routines.  Even a get-away holiday can be quite demanding as you organise yourself to get away, clear your diary, shelve your workload, and cope with worry about travel, flights, connections, delays and sometimes foreign language.

  1. Watch your reactions

As every person reacts differently to the same situation, something that might bother you need not necessarily both me, this can provoke a different response from different people.  There are three different recognised responses to stress, these are the ‘fight’ ‘flight’ and ‘flow’.  They can all work individually, or combined in the same situations.  They are not considered as being the right or wrong way of dealing with the situation, but we have established them as a coping mechanism.  The trouble can start when you habitually rely on just one type of response even when another might get better results.  The flight response comes in two forms, external and internal.  The external one involves assertively meeting problems head on, sometimes even before they arise.  Those who rely on this type of response tend to be energetic, ambitious, and competitive.  High achievers, who constantly push themselves to do better, become easily irritated or impatient when others have a different approach.  Typically they find it hard to relax and can be at risk from heat disorders.  There is also an internal fight response that might not be visible from the outside.

This is where we deal with problems internally, where we appear unemotional, organised and in control, rather than outwardly struggling.  Here the person tends to have particular fixed ways of doing things and may object if anyone suggest a change.  Imbalance in this direction can result in digestive disorders such as IBS or stomach ulcers.  The flight response, means what it says, we tend to take flight from a situation avoiding whenever possibly by pretending that they do not exist, or by giving up and letting someone else deal with them.  At best this makes us careful and cautious, at worst we are not in control of our lives and become dependent on others.  Those who use the flight response too often may never realise their full potential or learn to express their feelings to others.

Dangers include isolation, withdrawal and in extreme cases feelings of despair which some practitioners link with increased risks of Cancer.  The flow response, involves accepting the stressor without either fighting or running away from it.  Going with the flow is an expression which comes from the sea, the flow of the tide, letting the feelings of the moment guide you.  In this situation we can appear too vague, with no fixed values and beliefs.  It becomes difficult to make firm decisions and take action, you even come to feel that nothing  really matters.  This can be the extreme, its about finding a happy medium.  People who tend to flow can become susceptible to accidents and mild illness and easily fall for passing health fads and fringe cults.

  1. Develop a holistic approach

When you have gone through the previous 3 steps then take a look at developing a holistic approach to each situation you encounter and recognise as a stressor, once your holistic approach to each situation you encounter and recognise as a stressor, once your stress responses are under control.  This is a more long-term response to the problem.  Overall harmony and wellbeing is something to work towards throughout our lives and is never complete but stress experts suggest these first steps;

  • Be constantly aware of stressors and stress responses in everyday life
  • Look after yourself by eating a balanced diet
  • Take regular exercise
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Opt for compromises rather than extreme or one sided solutions to problems.
  • Enlist help from others when you need it
  • Practice a form of relaxation and deep breathing
  • Express your feelings to others
  • Seek other therapies such as reflexology to aid relaxation

Draw up a personal life plan an overall view of your life as a whole including your early life, achievements, major landmarks such as marriage and children, serious illness, where you are now, goals and aspirations for the future.  This can give a broader perspective on present problems and help you to plan ahead for future stressful times.