What causes stress and how do you deal with it?
Stress is something we all experience to varying degrees. It’s part of being human, and it can be beneficial - helping us navigate certain situations. But too much stress for too long can impact our health and wellbeing.
So we asked Consultant Psychologist Dr Bec Jackson a few questions about stress. In this article, we share her answers around what causes stress, how it affects our bodies and how to deal with it.
What causes stress?
Our brains have an inbuilt threat monitoring system that includes a region called the hypothalamus. This region is a key player in our bodies’ ‘fight or flight’ response. And Dr Bec says that its primary job is to ask one question: ‘Am I safe?’
“If your brain answers ‘no’,” she continues, “your hypothalamus triggers a ‘fight or flight’ stress response that affects both your brain and your body.”
Evolution hasn’t quite caught up with the fact that we can’t fight or run away from most of our threats today. So the stress response primes our bodies to respond to a threat of an unpleasant conversation or an overwhelming workload the same way it would a sabre-toothed tiger. And it does this whether the threat is real or imagined.
“Part of that response is hormonal,” says Dr Bec. You produce incredible amounts of stress hormones (including adrenaline and cortisol) when you’re stressed.
And – in the right amounts for a short time – this can be a good thing. These hormones can help you rise to challenges by keeping you focused, energetic and alert. In emergency situations, they can even save your life.
But producing too much of these hormones over too long a time can turn into chronic stress, which can then cause significant physical and mental health challenges.
What are the effects of stress on the body?
Dr Bec lists some of the short-term physical effects of stress as:
- muscle tension (a common cause of tension headaches)
- chest pain
- a racing heartbeat
- increased blood pressure
- an upset tummy
- shortness of breath
Our bodies can manage these short-term effects, especially if we get active. But the long-term physical effects of stress can be more severe, including:
- cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure
- digestive system problems
- menstrual and reproductive system issues
- immune system suppression
- cognitive decline
We can also experience several psychological effects of stress. This is because long-term exposure to stress hormones can rewire our brains, making us vulnerable to anxiety, low mood and other mental health issues.
Proven ways to reduce stress
“Avoiding stress altogether is impossible,” says Dr Bec. Instead, she recommends deciphering what stress is for you personally. What causes your stress? How does your body tell you that you’re stressed?
“When you figure this out, you can take steps to decrease the intensity of your stress response,” she adds. This, in turn, will help to keep your mind and body calmer.
Here are Dr Bec's top 5 ways to reduce your stress levels.
1. Drink less caffeine
Dr Bec loves coffee. So do millions of other Australians. But unfortunately, caffeine doesn’t love us.
Once it’s in your body, caffeine blocks the receptors in your brain that help to ‘slow down’ your nervous system. This means you produce more adrenaline, which triggers the fight or flight response.
Dr Bec’s advice is that reducing or avoiding caffeine is an important way to reduce your stress response.
2. Eat more natural antioxidants
Have you heard of free radicals? They’re highly reactive compounds that your body produces when you’re in a stress state.
Antioxidants help to neutralise the harmful effects of free radicals, which is why having more of them is useful when we’re stressed, and Dr Bec recommends focusing on nutritious food to ensure we get enough in our diets.
Many fruits and vegetables are naturally high in a range of different antioxidants. So if you’re not sure what to eat, she suggests focusing on natural wholefoods in all colours of the rainbow.
3. Explore your perceptions
Dr Bec says the thoughts you think correlate with the stress you feel. She recommends, “taking time to explore your perceptions and beliefs around pressure, workload and timelines.”
What do you believe is urgent? What should you prioritise?
We often perceive things like emails, text messages and phone calls as urgent when they’re not. Sometimes we feel as though we need to react to every single perceived demand immediately.
Dr Bec calls this the ‘pinball machine’ way of reacting to demands, and says that monitoring our perceptions helps to reduce that way of reacting.
4. Reframe your situation
When seeing your to-do list starts to feel like dealing with a stressful situation, Dr Bec suggests remembering that you’re safe and you’ve already met all your basic needs.
“The stressed feeling comes from interpreting the environment you’re in as threatening. So, checking in with yourself and remembering that you’re safe is a great way of dealing with that stress.”
A great way to reframe your environment is to practise gratitude. Dr Bec mentions a simple technique of switching the words ‘have to’ with ‘get to’ for any task you feel stressed about. So ‘I have to make school lunches’ would become ‘I get to make school lunches’.
This highlights all the things that you can be grateful for: access to nutritious food, being able to look after your kids and the privilege of having kids.
It’s amazing how a simple shift in language can reframe your thoughts.
5. Exercise more
How does exercise reduce stress? In several ways, according to Dr Bec.
Firstly, it can increase your health and sense of wellbeing, making you more resilient to life’s challenges. Plus, it triggers your brain to produce endorphins: feel-good brain chemicals that also serve as your body’s natural
And on top of that, the adrenaline and cortisol your stress response produces are designed to get you to do one thing: move! So physical activity effectively tells the stress hormones that they’ve done their job, neutralising them and allowing your nervous system to relax again.
This means physical exercise is great for both our mental and physical health.
In particular, walking outside can reduce stress, according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Walking in green spaces, such as parks or the bush, can put your brain into a calm, meditative state with little or no anxiety.
Other benefits of exercise for your mental wellbeing that can help to offset the effects of stress include:
- Sharper memory and thinking: endorphins not only make you feel better but also help with focus and productivity.
- Higher self-esteem: regular physical activity can help you improve your sense of self-worth, and is one of our recommended happiness hacks.
- Better quality sleep: even short bursts of exercise can help to regulate your sleep patterns (and we all know how important sleep is).
- More energy: better energy levels make it easier to get through the day.
Final thoughts on stress
Dr Bec’s biggest message is that we really need to be kind to ourselves when dealing with stressful situations. Everything, and Dr Bec means everything, ultimately comes back to either avoiding rejection, or obtaining and maintaining love and connection.
“So if you can ensure you feel safe and loved,” Dr Bec says, “you’ll find it far easier to deal with your stress.”
But of course, if you still feel like you’re struggling, chat to your local GP. They’ll be able to refer you on to someone who can help.
Dr Bec Jackson is a Consultant Psychologist with 20 years’ experience across clinical psychology, academia, therapy and education in clinical, forensic and organisational psychology.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021