How to understand and reduce stress in an increasingly stressful world

How to understand and reduce stress in an increasingly stressful world. Photo by Kathy on Unsplash

While it’s true we’re living in an increasingly stressful world, in this article we’ll shed light on ways to understand how stress affects us and then suggest some approaches to cope with or even reduce stress.

Our world is getting more stressful, with most of us having increasing responsibilities or pressures such as studying at school or university, keeping up with complex demands at work, or caring for children or ageing parents.

On top of this, there are unique global events that are making daily life for many Australians much more stressful. War in Europe has led to a once-in-a-generation rise in inflation and cost of living. Fuel and groceries are unhelpfully expensive. The global pandemic continues to drag on having unhelpful indirect consequences like disruptions to global supply chains or the availability of staff to perform their jobs. And once reliable airlines are cancelling flights as they lack the staff to operate them.

Locally, the health sector is languishing as lack of beds leaves patients waiting on the ramp outside hospitals in ambulances. Meanwhile, housing affordability in Adelaide is now a major stressor as individuals and families struggle to purchase homes or service home loans as the cash rate is steadily increased.

And if that were not enough, there is also a global climate crisis.

This has consequences for our mental health.

Mental health and stress rank as the highest personal concern for young people according to a recent survey from Mission Australia. This begs the question, how can we cope in an increasingly stressful world?

What actually is stress?

We experience stress as a feeling of being overwhelmed, tense, worried when facing a situation we can’t cope with. It can be intense over a short period of time, or continuing over a long period of time.

However, not all stress is bad.

Stress is a natural and adaptive function of the human body designed to ensure our survival.

When we experience a stressful situation, our endocrine system which consists of our brain (thalamus and pituitary gland) and kidneys (adrenal glands) releases the hormone adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol. This prepares our body to deal with a stressor by either freezing to avoid drawing attention, running away to escape or directly fighting the threat. This is called the flight, flight, freeze response. It causes rapid increases in heart rate, breathing, sweat production and blood flow to major muscles.

These functions are adaptive in a number of situations where we are in imminent danger like slamming the brakes to stop from colliding with someone when they walk out into the street, but they have the potential to move beyond being adaptive and functional when stress is chronic.

When we experience high degrees of stress over a long period of time, we can become burnt out which is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.

How can you effectively deal with stress?

Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their book Burnout (2019) illustrate ways to understand and deal with stress.

They make an important distinction between stress and stressors.

Too often we neglect the impact that stress causes to our bodies.

Here’s a helpful quote from Burnout:

The stress itself will kill you faster than the stressor will – unless you do something to complete the stress response cycle. While you’re managing the day’s stressors, your body is managing the day’s stress. It’s absolutely essential to your wellbeing that you give your body the resources it needs to complete the stress response cycles that have been activated.

We can accumulate decades of unresolved stress cycles if we don’t have adequate ways of completing the stress cycle.

Likewise, in times of prolonged stress, such as the uncertainty and disruption arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, our body and mind may become stuck in these survival responses, leading us to be less flexible and less able to find creative and adaptive ways to respond.

You can complete the stress cycle by helping your body to return to a baseline state through any of the following ways:

  • physical activity such as running, swimming or dancing
  • engaging in positive social interactions with friends and family (especially laughing)
  • doing creative activities like painting, singing or writing
  • allowing yourself to cry
  • receiving physical affection like a 20 second hug or spending time with a pet
  • deep, slow and measured breathing

There are also effective ways for dealing with stressors.

The Nagoski Sisters recommend connecting or engaging with the things that provide us with meaning and purpose. These are the intrinsic reasons behind our daily actions such as pursuing ambitious goals, making loving connections, contributing to something bigger than ourselves, or leaving a legacy.

How can a psychologist help you reduce stress?

Psychological science shows that there are effective ways for dealing with stress.

Giving time to sit down and unpacking the issues that are causing stress is an invaluable investment.

Psychologists are equipped to carefully and gently identify problems and help you to tackle them effectively in your own life. There is no one-size-fits all approach and a psychologist can help you choose strategies that resonate with you.

Here are a few examples of how a psychologist can help you:

  • specifically identifying your stressors
  • teaching you problem-solving strategies for stressors that can be changed
  • identifying negative self-talk and that makes stress more acute
  • reframing your self-talk in a more positive and helpful manner
  • practising or rehearsing how to tackle similar stressful situations
  • teaching you relaxation or mindfulness techniques to close the stress cycle
  • improving your time management to prevent unnecessary and preventable stressors from happening in the first place
  • promoting work-life balance so that the different areas of your life are given an appropriate amount of time and attention (work, relationships, health, fun)
  • learning mindfulness skills to assist you in being truly present and find more meaning in your daily life experience
  • developing the ability to adapt and be more psychologically flexible to the curve balls and discomfort that life throws us
  • identifying the values that you want to live your life by and use as an anchor to guide your choices and reduce unnecessary stress
  • working with challenges in your relationships that may be exacerbating your stress levels
  • learning to overcome avoidance or procrastination of activities and tasks that maintain these repetitive cycles of stress

The stressors in our world today may well be increasing, but the team at Attuned Psychology is ready to help you understand and address your stress and be part of your health journey.

You can book an appointment to see a psychologist at Attuned Psychology here.

Attuned Psychology Team

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