What is stress? How does it feel? And how can we relieve stress?
by Emilie Glen Colsted
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as “the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors”. When we experience stress, it may feel like we are under too much pressure or that we are juggling 100 things at the same time.
Stress can be caused by various things (stressors). E.g.
mental or emotional pressure
deadlines at work or school
When we detect stressors, an area in the brain called the hypothalamus signals the nervous systems to initiate the fight or flight response.
This makes our body release stress hormones (e.g. cortisol and adrenaline), which causes the heart to beat faster, the breathing to become more rapid, and the pulse and blood pressure to increase. These processes help send extra oxygen to the brain and hereby boost alertness.
In other words, stress is the human body’s way of helping us deal with pressure by either fighting or fleeing it.
Helpful stress and unhelpful stress
The levels of stress hormones typically return to normal after the threat has passed. E.g. after a deadline. And stress in shorter periods can be helpful, making us feel motivated to take action and complete tasks. Stress can even make us feel more alive or excited.
But over time, stress can contribute to and worsen existing mental health problems, like anxiety, depression and insomnia. It can have negative effects on our psychical health (e.g. high blood pressure, headaches and low concentration) as well as our ability to navigate relationships and cope with obligations like school or work.
Gallup (2021) reports that four in 10 adults worldwide experienced great levels of stress (41%). For millions, stress can have us feel unable to cope.
How to relieve stress
Here are some tips on how to help yourself and calm down stress:
Recognise when stress becomes a problem
It's important to notice warning signs of stress, like headaches, tiredness or mood changes. These may indicate when stress becomes unhelpful and when you need to address it. Try to examine what may be causing the stress to find practical solutions to the things you can control. E.g. by asking for help or saying no to tasks you can't take on right now. You can also prioritise essential commitments - to others and yourself - by examining your expectations and setting realistic ones.
If you notice warning signs and that you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, then try to seek professional treatment by talking to your doctor or a therapist. If the stress you experience is related to work, then you can also reach out to a manager or the HR team.
Talk to someone
Venting to someone you know can be a good way to get to know your stress triggers (what’s causing you to get hit by stress) and process your feelings. You can also choose to ventilate by yourself, e.g. by writing down your thoughts and feelings.
Calming music can help us quickly relieve stress. It affects the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the heartbeat slow down and the body to calm. When we experience our fight-or-flight response is about to kick, then we can calm down with chill tunes.