Stress – what is it and can it be good for us?

April is stress awareness month so I wanted to look at what stress is, and whilst we know that too much can be bad for us, is there a point at which stress can actually help us to perform better.
As we know when we reach menopause, we can start to experience anxiety in a range of different circumstances. Often women who have never experienced anxiety before, can suddenly find themselves feeling more concerned or worried about situations than they did before, and this can be quite unnerving. Stress and anxiety are very closely linked and cause the same feelings of uncertainty and worry.

What is stress?

We hear about stress so much these days but do we actually know what it is. In fact that there is no medical definition for stress – it’s not an illness but more a collection of emotions we experience which bring about chemical changes in our bodies, including the release of the “stress” hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. When we say we are “stressed” what we are describing is our physical or emotional response to the demands or pressures of our daily lives. There are many different situations or things that can cause us to feel stressed including, but not limited to, work, relationships, money, exams, illness or world events that do not directly impact us, like the global pandemic or war in Ukraine, but cause us to worry or feel heightened tension around our own safety. In real terms, feeling stressed is your body’s and mind’s way of alerting you to potential danger both real and perceived. It is your internal Security Guard doing her job and looking after you.

My story
I’ll share my own story here as I’ve struggled with stress in the past, although in the end was diagnosed with anxiety and depression which, as I’ve said earlier, are very closely linked to our feelings of stress. My stress was linked to my work – I was in a high powered role with lots of responsibility. At the time the organisation was going through a restructure and everyone was concerned about their futures, so already the sense of stress was high in those around me. I was working with the management team to identify the roles and people we would no longer need in the new structure. I was spending my day designing processes that would ultimately help us to decide which staff would remain working with us and those that would sadly be facing redundancy.
I felt the pressure of this role – in fact it was immense as I recognised the importance of what I was doing and how it would impact those around me. Knowing I was designing something that had the potential to change someone’s life in a negative way was huge for me – the responsibility became a burden. I was spending my days talking with trade union colleagues trying to get the right processes to support the staff through this time. It was not a good time, with emotions running high that made meetings quite difficult – I understood the reason for the emotions but throughout had to keep my own in check. I had to listen to all the arguments; have conversations with colleagues that were emotionally charged, one minute someone would be calm, the next angry and then upset; I had to try to explain the management position and help the staff understand the next steps and what that could mean for them. Whilst I recognised this time was hardest on those staff in the middle of the conversations, it was also hard on me.
Finding myself in highly emotional situations every day took its toll on me. I started to dread my days; I started to double and treble check everything for fear of making a mistake; I started to worry about the conversations I was going to have; I started to feel responsible for the reactions of those around me and I started to lose sleep because I was feeling so “stressed”. Stress wasn’t just about the work and the sense of responsibility, but it was about my own safety mechanism. My brain was registering that the situations made me feel vulnerable and so my own Security Guard started to kick in. My system became flooded with cortisol and adrenaline – my heart rate quickened, my breathing became shallow, I started to feel hot, and I experienced heightened senses and felt on edge all the time. There was no release from these physical symptoms of stress as I experienced them continuously. My body was literally looking for the danger so it could fight it or run away. When it couldn’t find the danger, it didn’t know what to do and that made the situation worse.
In the end my feelings of stress boiled over and I couldn’t take any more – I burnt out completely. My Security Guard stopped me from functioning and sought ways to take me out of the situation. I became confused, couldn’t make decisions, didn’t want to be around people and felt exhausted all the time. This is stress!
But stress can be good for us, can’t it?
Well yes a small, controllable amount of stress can have positive impacts for us. For instance, when we feel butterflies or nervous anticipation before we are going to give a speech, or perhaps compete in sports. It is the release of adrenaline that heightens our senses and gives us that extra boost of confidence to get the job done. But it is when the stress takes over and gets out of hand – like I was experiencing – that it switches over and can have devastating impacts for us. It’s all about balance, but of course with our fast paced lives, getting the balance right can be quite tough.

So what can we do to better manage the stress in our lives and keep those feelings at a balanced level? Here are a few ideas that you could try now to recognise and manage your stress.
Understand your baseline – this is all about getting to know yourself. I talk to my clients about this a lot because we need to be self-aware enough to know what our “normal” looks like, to be able to recognise when things are changing. Plus getting to know your feelings when you are relaxed and how they change when you become stressed, will help you to spot the warning signs. I advocate keeping a Mood Diary for about 4 weeks. Each day you note down your emotions and thoughts – both positive and negative – together with what you were doing that caused those emotions and thoughts. You can then review this and get an understanding of what situations cause you to feel stressed and how this manifests i.e., the small changes in your behaviour.
Understand your triggers – again this is about getting to know you better and understanding what situations, activities or people contribute to you feeling stressed. When you start to feel stressed, make a note of the situation and whether your stress was good i.e., gave you a sense of excited anticipation or bad i.e., made you feel like you wanted to run away. This will help you to understand what triggers your feelings of stress and you can then build a plan to manage those situations or if you can, avoid them.
Understand and build your coping strategies – this is all about working out what you can do when you are feeling stressed. These can take many different forms such as practicing meditation, going for a walk, taking a break etc. Whatever it is, focus on the positive coping strategies rather than reaching for the crutches that can do more damage such as overeating, alcohol or other substance abuse.
Understand your network – this is about the people you can turn to who will help you when you feel stressed. Asking for help can be the most difficult thing we have to do, but it should always be our first “go to” when we feel stressed. Knowing that you have people around you who can help you or whom know you well enough to spot the changes, and offer a friendly word or a shoulder of support, can be just what you need to help you to overcome those feelings. The person who says after the event “I thought you were struggling” isn’t the person you need; you need that one person who cares enough to ask “are you okay, can I help” not once, but twice.
Understand when you need to take time out – and take that time out. Let those around you know that you need some time alone or out of the situation to recharge your batteries. The more time you can take for yourself to rest and recharge, the more able you will be to manage or cope with stress in your life.

What next?
These are just a few ways in which I help my clients to overcome stress. Stress can hit us at any time in our lives, but it can be particularly overwhelming when we hit perimenopause as we already feel like we aren’t in control of the changes in our bodies. So when our minds start to feel overwhelmed it can tip us over into anxiety or depression. There are scientific reasons why we feel this way at this stage in our lives – take a look at my earlier blog on Menopause and Anxiety or complete the Menopause Wellbeing Quiz to get access to the help card on Loss of Confidence, which is bound up with heightened anxiety and stress at menopause.
If you’d like more support, we have lots of resources to help. Take a look at the Calm Retreat self-learning journey for more support or book a call with me so that we can explore what is going on for you and how you can better manage those feelings.
I hope you found this blog informative and look forward to sharing more helpful tips and stories with you soon.

ative and look forward to sharing more helpful tips and stories with you soon.