What is stress?

What is stress?

Stress is a natural response to life’s challenges and can be a force for good, but when it starts to overwhelm us then it can become a real problem. Find out more about what stress is and techniques you can use to deal with it.

The word stress literally means 'power' or 'pressure' and the stress we experience in a normal day is a very normal phenomenon. The body is programmed to respond to stress, because that way we can respond appropriately to dangerous situations. This is called the fight-or-flight response, a term which describes how, in prehistoric times, people often had to literally fight for their lives or flee to survive physical danger.

Even though there may be less likelihood of life-threatening danger, than in prehistoric times, the mechanism still works the same way. In a risky situation your blood pressure rises, your heart rate goes up, your muscles tense, your hairs stand upright and your senses become sharper. Even your pain threshold drops temporarily. Your body is on full alert and can now react more quickly.

This reaction is caused by ‘stress hormones’ adrenaline and noradrenaline. Besides their stress reaction, the hormone cortisol pushes more glucose into the bloodstream, so that the body can get the extra energy it might need for ‘fight or flight’. When the stressful situation is over, your body slowly comes back to a normal state of rest.

In conditions of prolonged stress, there is a constant production of stress hormones, but in fuelling the body’s continual state of readiness there’s less energy for maintaining healthy cells. Now it becomes obvious why stress over a long period is not healthy and will sooner or later take its toll on our wellbeing.

Causes of Stress

The causes of stress range from everyday situations such as traffic jams or work peaks to major life events such as bereavement. How you deal with a particular situation depends very much on your own situation and coping mechanisms. The impact of stress occurs when the strain of a particular situation exceeds what a person can do.

The main causes of stress can be divided into five categories:

1. Overload

Overload is usually associated with too great a workload - tasks that are too numerous or too difficult. In any job this is likely to crop up from time to time, but it can also affect home-workers or people trying to juggle work and home life demands.

2. Inactivity or lack of purpose  
Strangely enough, you can also get stress from spending too much time doing too little, such as a job loss. This can lead to the feeling that someone has too few responsibilities, is not significant or necessary, or is undervalued.

3. The loss of a loved one
After losing a close relative, partner or friend – because of a death or other separation – the grief process can become a major source of stress.

4. A particularly stressful event   
This can arise following a serious illness or surgery, or as a response to an immediate threat of physical violence, or from specific stress peaks such as public speaking or sports performance.

5. Feelings of powerlessness or loss of control  
Dealing with heavy traffic or becoming ill are examples of this. But lack of control over the kids or in work situations can also lead to stress.

Symptoms of stress

Everyone reacts differently to stress. To some people it is just something they register and deal with, while others literally break into a cold sweat, tremble or faint.

These physical symptoms can indicate stress:

1. Headaches

2. Muscle pain in the neck, shoulders and back

3. Impaired digestion

4. Palpitations

5. Excessive sweating

6. Hypertension

7. Breathing problems and hyperventilation

8. Fatigue

9. Restlessness

10. Poor sleep

Mindfulness techniques to tackle stress

So – let’s deal with stress

Completely eliminating stress from our lives is neither possible nor necessary. What’s more important is to find strategies that help us to cope when it crops up in life. Here are some simple tips to stop tension building in your life.

1. Find the cause and address it
The first step in learning to cope with excessive stress is to find out what is causing it. It might seem obvious, if it’s work or relationship based, but sometimes you have to dig deeper to find out where your anxiety is coming from. If you know the cause, it is important to determine whether you can change anything, or at least lessen its impact. Can you discuss your workload with your employer? Could you rearrange the day to fit everything in better?

There are some situations where making changes is not an option, and where it may be advisable to seek professional help. Your doctor is always a good first step, as they can work with you to determine the seriousness of the situation and check your general health. A doctor may refer you for more specialist help if they feel that’s needed.

2. Plan relaxation
In order to avoid constant production of stress hormones in your body, it's important to make time for relaxation. Your mind needs rest, but you should also give your body a chance to switch off for a while. This could take the form of sports for example, but also make sure you get a daily dose of relaxation. If you’re now thinking you’re too busy – that’s exactly why you need to do it. Set aside half an hour every day and do something that you know relaxes you. Meditation or breathing exercises are excellent for this, but enjoying a hot bath, reading, listening to music or just sitting stroking the cat can be just as helpful.

3. Breathe deeply  

In a stressful situation, you may start to breathe shallowly, too rapidly, or even hold your breath. Hyperventilation is a natural response to stress, but you crank up the stress response when you start to ‘over-breathe’. Deep abdominal breathing is a good way to get your balance back. Put your hands on your belly and try to push them out as you take a deep breath, as slowly as possible. You’ll get more oxygen in and you automatically become calmer.

4. Let nature help you
Lavender not only has a wonderful fragrance, but also has a proven ability to induce calmness and rest. Research has found that the smell stimulates the production of serotonin and creates a brain pattern of peace and tranquillity. Natural lavender can therefore help to you to relax, and you can get this from a soothing bath with Weleda Lavender Relaxing Bath Milk, a massage with Lavender Relaxing Body Oil or just by using Lavender Creamy Body Wash as you wash or shower. Lavender oil on the temples, wrists or neck has a calming effect. Weleda also offers natural remedies including our homeopathic Stress Relief Oral Spray* for the temporary relief of mild stress, irritability and tension.

5. Say “no” more often   
Saying "no" may not be in our nature, but it is sensible to do this occasionally. Many people feel stressed by too many tasks and responsibilities – not just in the workplace, but also at home. It’s important to recognise where your limits are and to say “I’m sorry, I can’t do that’” rather than agreeing to everything and getting stressed about how to achieve it all.

6. Keep healthy
A body weakened by an unbalanced diet, lack of sleep or too little exercise will get stressed more quickly and recover more slowly. Eat well and get enough sleep – and did you know you can create ‘happiness’ endorphins through exercise? This hormone makes for a wonderfully relaxed feeling of wellbeing that runners often experience, known as the 'runners high'.

Adapt a little, take care of yourself and make sure you don’t take on too much, and when stress comes, work with nature and your body to get through it as quickly and as positively as possible.

*Always read the label

Here are some great self care products to help you with stress