The Impact of Stress (and how to get better at it)

The Impact of Stress (and how to get better at it)

Leesa Garrety Registered Psychologist at Northbridge & St Ives explains.

Stress is often painted as the bad guy. We are told that we should avoid being stressed, that stress is a bad thing. But it is not as simple as that.

Stress is a generic system that helps our body activate a response to deal with what it perceives as a threat. Stressors can be physical – such as heat, cold, need to respond to attack or dangers in our environment as well as psychological – needing to think on our feet during a meeting, or in an argument. This system activates even when we are thinking about or observing a stressor. Think of sitting in your lounge room watching a horror movie – our heart can be racing, and we have a heighted hypervigilance and startle response even though we are sitting on a comfortable chair in our lounge room, watching the picture of a shark or an axe murderer. Our body is reacting to help protect us and keep us safe even though there is no actual need for that physiological response at this time.

In the short term, stress can be helpful. It can help improve our immune system, it helps speed us up and helps us think on our feet, it helps us focus on dealing with a particular challenge. We get a feeling that something is not right and we need to do something or say something! It dilates our blood vessels, increases our heart rate, and gets us physiologically ready to deal with the potential threat (Whether that be a potential attack or running late on a deadline). Our body de-prioritises those things not needed in the emergency – digestion, reproduction, saliva production and sIeep. It treats the current situation as an emergency and prepares itself accordingly. Sometimes people interpret this feeling as anxiety.

This is not helpful at bedtime when you want your body in rest and digest mode, not the emergency- fight / flight / freeze mode.

In the long term, stress can have a negative effect. When stress is chronic and starts impacting sleep negatively, it can cause high blood pressure / hypertension which can result in an increased risk of heart issues or stroke and other health issues. Stress can make us more likely to develop addiction or substance use issues; it can negatively impact memory, and studies indicate it can be involved in the development of dementia.

Long term release of adrenalin / epinephrine can be one of the reasons we can fall sick after a long year, just when we take our well-deserved holiday. Adrenalin helps boost the immune system (as far as the body is concerned, bacteria and viruses are a stressor / potential threat) and it crashes when we finally stop.

However, the news is not all bad. We can get better at stress. The science also shows that how we interpret stress changes our body’s response to stress. If we view a high heart rate as our body helping us to meet the challenge we are facing, so that we interpret it positively, we can change how our heart responds. Our heart rate may be high, but the blood vessels are not constricted, which is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. Physiologically, our body reacts the same to situations of courage and stress. Even going on a roller coaster can activate this system. How we interpret the situation changes how we relate to it. On a roller coaster, the adrenalin rush and increased heart rate may be interpreted positively, as a ‘Let’s go, again!!’ 

Peaks in our stress response in the short term can be positive – on our ability to manage the situation we are in as well as improving our body’s ability to fight bacterial, viral or other physical stressors. We don’t want to not have a strong stress response; we want to be able to turn it down / off at times when it is not helpful and to decrease long term stress.

There are also strategies, such as breathing, that help us manage the physiological symptoms of stress in the short term. These can help to calm our body and to keep us alert but not reactive, for example, in meeting with a difficult client or boss, or to help us turn off and get ready to sleep at the end of the day. We can learn to cognitively re-frame what is happening which can change how we interpret the stressor and how our body responds to stress.

One of the jobs of a psychologist is to help you identify the strategies suitable for you that can help you to get better at stress. 

Leesa is an independent consultant who runs her own medical model within The Madison Medical Practice.

Phone 9000 9955 to make an appointment with Psychologist Leesa Garrety to discuss this issue.

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