Yesterday I walked past this tree, I noticed how entwined the branches were – like a tangled necklace. It made me think of the work I do with clients; how so often it is a case of untangling the branches to find the trunk underneath. Many people do not know what is wrong, they just know they don’t feel right. There may be so many layers to peel back before the root cause is found. Often people present with a specific complaint, but as we start to untangle the branches we realise that the issue is actually a symptom of something else. Stress is very often like this, there are so many symptoms of stress often people do not realise the reason their body is behaving in a certain way is due to stress. So often people say “but I’m not stressed” – actually, it may be that the body is reacting to something without you even realising.
April is stress awareness month. When I first set up practice as a hypnotherapist; over ten years ago, most of my clients wanted to lose weight, quit smoking or stop a habit. Over the past couple of years, most of my clients want help with easing stress or anxiety. I enjoy this type of work and I do believe in manifestation so it may be that I attract it, however I suspect it may be changes in our society. Work pressures may have increased, technology has increased life pressure and there may be greater expectations of what we can achieve as individuals. For example, I have heard other’s say that we are expected to parent like we don’t have a job and work like we don’t have children. There is convenience food available, so we don’t have to stop, but we find encouragement to cook from scratch, to be vegan and sugar free. Online shops mean that we can order something in the evening to arrive the next morning – but this means we can spend three hours searching for the best deal – and we should really shop ‘independent and local’. We should also exercise five times a week but when?!
Technology is moving far too quickly for us human animals. The brain does not realise that we do not need excess adrenaline to run though our body because we need to finish a piece of work for the end of the week. The brain does not realise that our heart needs to beat faster because our children need to be picked up from school, but we also need to be in a work meeting. Our blood pressure doesn’t need to rise because we feel obliged to research the best washing machine before buying. Our muscles do not need to tense because we’ve read something on Facebook that gives us feelings of unease. We do not need to feel the stress response because it’s 10pm and we haven’t done 10,000 steps. But this is what often happens.
Stress is the body’s response to a dangerous situation. When our brain senses danger it responds to this by entering the “fight or flight” response. The brain is reacting quickly and effectively to save your life. The nervous system floods your body with epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline) and cortisol. To hear that epinephrine is used in medical situations as a stimulant in cardiac arrest, as a vasoconstrictor in shock, and as a bronchodilator and antispasmodic in bronchial asthma goes some way to explain why there is such a severe reaction in the body when we feel stress.
There are cortisol receptors all over the body, which means cortisol plays a part in overall body health. It helps to regulate the metabolism, control blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation and assist the memory. Cortisol also has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps to control blood pressure. During pregnancy cortisol supports the developing foetus. However, alongside this cortisol shuts down the systems of the body that are not needed when facing immediate danger, such as the digestive system and the reproductive system.
The effects of adrenaline and cortisol on the body are increased blood pressure, faster breathing, tighter muscles, a racing heart and sharpened senses. All of this is intended to increase your strength and stamina, increase your focus and speed up your reaction time so that you can fight or flee from the danger in front of you. It is a valid and necessary response … generally to living a primitive live. The fight or flight response in the brain has not yet evolved to match our lifestyle. Not only this but the brain reacts in the same way to a real or imaginary threat. In 1995 a Harvard study (Pascual-Leone A, 2019) showed a similarity in how the brain reacts to real and imagined situations. The subjects in the study were asked to play a one handed, five finger exercise on a piano. The first group were asked to physically perform the exercise for two hours a day for five days, whilst the mental practise group were to do the same but in their imagination. The control group did not practise the exercise. TMS (brain stimulation) was used to show the effects on the brain. As you can see the physical practise and mental practise groups showed very similar results.
This knowledge should be taken into consideration when questioning why our body is behaving in a certain way. Whilst there are times when the fight or flight response is needed; when we need to perform an emergency stop whilst driving for example, more rare but possible situations such as running from a falling tree, a house fire or similar. In other situations, the fight or flight response can help us; in sport to achieve great results, to achieve in situations that require preparation such as school exams or a presentation at work as the stress encourages us to prepare instead of do something more pleasurable and in some situations the fight or flight response can positively challenge us. BUT the first thing to consider is that we will (some people more than others) enter the fight or flight response when we do not need to. There are times that our brain perceives a situation to be a threat to our life when it really is not. The second thing to consider is that our brain may do this even when the situation is imagined.
So simply put, stress is the body entering the fight or flight response because the brain has sensed imminent danger. The fight or flight response is designed to be a quick response to move us out of the face of danger quickly, we are not designed to stay in this physical state for a long period of time. However, as the perceived life-threatening event is very rarely life threatening, or short lived we find ourselves spending, days, weeks, months in the fight or flight response. Some of the effects of the body being in this state for so long are (HelpGuide.org, 2019);
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Anxiety and agitation
- Moodiness, irritability, or anger
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loneliness and isolation
- Other mental or emotional health problems
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heart rate
- Loss of libido
- Frequent colds or flu
- Eating more or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
So, what can we do about this?
- Recognise that we are suffering with something and we do not have to
- Accept that we may be living in the fight or flight response – a stressed state
- Find a way to help the brain understand that we are not in danger and seek support to help the body move out of the fight or flight response*
(*if you feel that you are in danger please seek the relevant support)
There are a number of ways that therapy can help with the stress response. This ranges from techniques to help manage situations, to helping the brain recognise what is a danger and what isn’t, to relaxation techniques and tools to eliminate the stress response when it occurs.
Every course of therapy with me begins with a free, one hour, no obligation consultation. I ask a number of questions that give us both an insight into the situation. I can suggest the best way to work and you have the opportunity to ask any questions you may have.
HelpGuide.org. (2019). Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes. [online] Available at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-symptoms-signs-and-causes.htm/ [Accessed 21 Mar. 2019].
Pascual-Leone A, e. (2019). Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7500130 [Accessed 21 Mar. 2019].
Hormone.org. (2019). Cortisol | Hormone Health Network. Available at: https://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/cortisol [Accessed 21 Mar. 2019].
Publishing, H. (2019). Understanding the stress response – Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response [Accessed 21 Mar. 2019].
McEwen, Bruce S. “Central Effects of Stress Hormones in Health and Disease: Understanding the Protective and Damaging Effects of Stress and Stress Mediators.” European Journal of Pharmacology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 7 Apr. 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2474765/.
Team, H. and Team, H. (2019). How is Anxiety Different from Stress? – Stress and anxiety. [online] Healthstatus.com. Available at: