In many ways, life is safer and easier now than it’s ever been. For instance, you’re less likely to die from untreatable diseases, you’ll work fewer hours and receive better pay (even if it doesn’t always feel like it!), and you have all the conveniences of modern technology to help you manage your life. Given all these advantages, why are people suffering more from stress and anxiety now than ever before; and what can you do to avoid succumbing to chronic stress?

What is stress?

Our lives may be more sophisticated than our primitive ancestors were, but the basic defense mechanisms developed by early man are still operating, controlled by a part of the brain called the amygdala. This section of your brain deals with primal emotions, one of which is fear. Whenever your brain detects a risk to your wellbeing, fear is the emotional response, and feeling fear triggers the production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

These are what is known as the “fight or flight” hormones because they prepare you physically for combat or speedy retreat, whichever seems the best option. Your heart pumps harder to get oxygenated blood around your body, your muscles tense up ready to spring into action, and all your senses become more highly attuned. This means you can react more quickly, run faster, and fight harder. Such a response is perfect for dealing with life-threatening situations, but not so helpful when the threat isn’t a physical one.

Why is stress so common when life is so much safer now?

It would make sense for the stress response to be diminished now there’s less chance of being attacked by a pack of wolves during your average working day. Unfortunately, the fight or flight response doesn’t distinguish between types of threats, so any potentially damaging situation can give rise to fear and result in increased production of stress hormones.

Modern triggers of the stress response are less often due to physical danger, and far more frequently a result of psychological threat. These threats can be serious, potentially life-altering problems such as serious illness or bankruptcy, but there are numerous ways in which multiple, smaller threats lead to repeated activation of the stress response each day.

Take an average day; causes of stress could include:

  • Getting kids ready for school
  • Getting to work on time
  • Meeting a work deadline
  • Forgetting to carry out an important task
  • A disagreement with a co-worker
  • Finding a mole that looks like it’s changed shape
  • Receiving a bill in the mail
  • Getting a warning text from the bank as your funds are low

The list could go on and on. Try reflecting on an average day in your own life and you’ll probably come up with a list of 20, 30, or even more minor threats that you come across most days. Each time you feel that tingle of fear, or the twist in your gut of stress, your body is on alert and pumping out adrenaline and cortisol. Over time, this continual release of powerful hormones becomes a chronic problem, one that can cause serious health problems if you don’t deal with it.

Why is stress harmful?

Stress isn’t a problem as long as it doesn’t become chronic. In fact, it can be helpful in situations where you need to be sharp and on top of your game. It’s when your body never gets any relief from the constant release of adrenaline and cortisol that you can start to suffer ill effects, such as:

  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive upsets
  • Skin problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability and anger issues

If left unchecked, the effects of stress can make life miserable and leave you feeling pretty sick and low.

How do I prevent stress?

The best way to manage stress is to avoid it in the first place. Sit down quietly one evening with a notepad and make a list of everything you can think of that causes you stress, fear, anxiety, or distress. Include even the smallest details, because each trigger contributes to the accumulation of the stress burden. Once you’ve completed your list, go through it and pick out the problems by theme.

For example, you might have eight incidents during the day that relate to money – money is nearly always one of the chief causes of stress, so this is quite likely. Worrying about your finances and encountering difficulties throughout the day because of your lack of funds isn’t a problem that will be miraculously solved by itself. You need to take action to manage your financial situation and ease the pressure.

You might need to look at your spending and make some changes, find a new source of income, or find a way of reducing interest payments on debts. There are some excellent personal finance resources available online to help you get to grips with your money, so have a look at what they advise and apply it to your own situation. If you’re thinking of using credit to get you out of a hole, be very careful about taking on new debt, and only use the best resource for finding credit solutions that will help you rather than adding to your problems.

How do I deal with stress?

If you’re feeling stressed, you need to break the cycle of constant stress hormone production, which means you need to learn to relax and get your mind off the causes of your worries and fears. Different stress relief methods work for different people, and you may find you need to try a few different ways of combating your stress before you find the most effective method. Some of the best ways to ease stress include:

  • Exercise
  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi
  • Massage or a spa day
  • Taking a vacation or short break
  • Having a night out or a day with friends
  • Taking up a new hobby
  • Learning a new skill
  • Talking about your problems

Whatever is causing chronic stress, you can take steps to deal with it and lead a happier, healthier life.

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