Stress: Friend or Foe?

April is Stress Awareness Month and its aim is to raise awareness of the impact of stress.  

When we think of the word stress, it can trigger a lot of negative feelings. These can be physical, such as an increased heart rate, stomach turning into knots, sweaty palms, fast breathing and they can also be mental and emotional, such as feeling overwhelmed, anxious, racing thoughts, lack of enjoyment in things. These behavioural responses are very taxing and not a pleasant experience. Therefore, it begs the question whether stress is our friend or foe?  

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), stress can be defined “as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives.”  

The key part to highlight is that it is a natural human response.  Stress has been key to our success in evolution. When faced with a threatening situation, our muscles tense, we may start to sweat, our breathing may quicken. Does this sound familiar? This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the ‘fight-or-flight (or-freeze)’ response, which is the survival mechanism that allows humans to react quickly to life-threatening situations.  

In short, our stress response goes through two pathways: the short/immediate pathway and the slightly longer pathway. The short pathway is that adrenaline spike that we have mentioned, which allows us to quickly respond to stress inducing situations. The slightly longer pathway involves the use of your prefrontal cortex. Your prefrontal cortex acts like the manager in your brain. n simple terms, it conducts problem-solving, impulse control, reasoning and other functions. The reason why this is important is because whilst your immediate response is to feel that adrenaline spike, it is your prefrontal cortex that goes “wait hang on a minute!” and allows you to process the threat further. Why does this matter? Because it shows that we can process situations that make us feel that initial threat and spike in adrenaline and that feeling the initial stressful moments are completely normal. It is your brain doing its job. 

So far, it would seem that stress is a friend that has protected us from threats for many generations in our evolution. The short immediate pathway in the brain allows us to respond by increasing our levels of adrenaline to prepare to fight or flee a situation. Our longer pathway with the use of our prefrontal cortex allows us to process the threat further to make more accurate decisions. But when does stress become our foe?  

Fast forward many stages of evolution and we are now in the modern era. Our threats that made us stressed, such as sabretooth tigers wanting to raid our caves, are long gone. Our threats are now different; they come in the form of traffic jams, looming deadlines, performance reviews, impostor syndrome and heavy workloads. What remains the same is our response to stress. This is why we have those feelings of stress that we mentioned when faced with a threat for example a looming deadline. We have the same feelings as our ancestors did when faced with a sabretooth tiger. The increase in our threats is how stress can be our foe.  

When we have a wide range of threats, our stress response builds and almost remains constant. Therefore, it can leave us in a permanent state of fight or flight. This is where we see the impacts on both the physical and mental wellbeing of an individual. Physical impacts can be in the form of headaches, nausea, digestive problems, heart problems. Mental impacts can be in the form of anger, anxiety, depression, irritability. Continued, long-term stress can then lead to burnout which is a state of physical and mental exhaustion. This is when stress is not our friend.  

How can we make stress more our friend than our foe? There are many coping strategies, some will work for certain people, some will work for others. What you are doing now, reading this article, is giving you a better understanding of the origins of stress and the effects of stress. What this will hopefully start doing is making you more aware of your brain and when are more aware, we make the unconscious become conscious. Only by being conscious of stress can we than act on it., If we are not aware of what is happening, then it is very difficult to address it. This is one of the steps towards behavioural change.  

The next time you are feeling those symptoms of stress, you now know that it is your brain’s reaction to a threat. So the first thing to remember is that your brain is doing its job! Almost instantaneously your prefrontal cortex is already kicking in to process that threat further to better understand it. Then what can you do?  

  • Acknowledge your stress.  

  • One of the most irritating things to hear is “just calm down” when you are feeling stressed. Your brain is doing its job, so let it!  

  • Take the time to process that stress, exercise that prefrontal cortex further 

  • What is causing you the stress? Why is it causing you stress? How am I reacting?  

  • Manage your adrenaline spike. Rapid breathing, heart rate increase, stomach knots. Breathe! 

  •  It sounds obvious and cheesy, but your brain and your heart need to be checked and oxygen helps them both out. Inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds. Let your body process that adrenaline.  

  • Once ready, come up with an action plan.  

  • That might be to address the immediate threat that is causing you the stress. That might be to walk away and address it at a better time. Knowing that you are experiencing high levels of emotions and stress initially might not be the best time to address what is causing you the stress, so take your time if you can.  

Those are just a few ways to address the immediate stress. Stress is your friend when it comes to protecting you from harm and has done it for many stages in our evolution. Stress is not very friendly when it builds and builds and leads to negative impacts on your body and brain. Stress is natural which means we sometimes must let it perform its role, but it is our follow-up actions that can make stress our ally. A lot of people tend to find that their best work or their great ideas come from a time of pressure or intensity and that is because we are using that stress to drive our behaviours, making stress work with us and not just damaging us.  

There are many ways to cope with stress. Find your own or better yet, ask for help. Community Business is here, your colleagues are there, your friends and family are there, all willing and ready to help. Someone once described “a bad 5 minutes is not a bad day, a bad day is not a bad life”. Even though at the time the stress can be so intense that it is clouding over everything and in some cases it does, just know that your brain is doing its job and that you can take control. As always, look after yourself. 


About the Author: Chris Mack, Programme Manager, Employee Wellbeing