Why is it that sometimes when you finally get away for a well-deserved break, you suddenly find yourself ill with a cold, cough or similar symptoms? Well, according to Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets, it’s because of a phenomenon called ‘leisure sickness’.
Leisure sickness is thought to be caused by a number of different factors, including a sudden reduction in stress hormones when we finally get a chance to relax, which can weaken our immune systems, leaving us more prone to infection. Couple this with a change in eating habits, activity levels and confined space on trains and planes and you’ve got a recipe for the sniffles.
Now when you consider that as many as 60-80% of GP consultations are related to stress — a claim made by Dr Rangan Chatterjee in his book “The Stress Solution” — understanding more about stress could be extremely helpful as we’re now in the middle of the holiday season.
In today’s blog, we’re talking about stress; what it is and why it’s important to understand the role it plays. We also share some First Aid for Stress advice to help you tackle stress and support your immune system.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to a threat and the ultimate purpose of the stress response is to keep you alive. You may have heard it referred to as the fight/flight/freeze response and the key chemical here is adrenaline.
The part of your brain that looks after this response is wired to start by assuming the worst and then once you’ve got a better sense of the risk to downgrade it. Although this can be costly in terms of your mental and physical health, it does actually makes sense from a survival perspective.
Imagine you see a cat-like animal. You assume that it is a cat but actually it is a tiger. This mistake could cost you your life. Now imagine, you see a catlike animal. You assume it is a tiger until you got a closer look and see that it is a cat. The cost of going into the stress response in terms of your body’s resources is significant but because you’ve survived the encounter, you’ve got the chance to recuperate and replenish those resources, because you’re still alive. So from an evolutionary perspective having the worst-case scenario as your starting point makes sense.
But what if it’s a tiger?
Knowing that this part of your brain is wired to assume the worst-case scenario means that you can be kinder to yourself when you know you’re overreacting or pay attention to the fear that your more rational self (that would be your top scoop) is dismissing as ridiculous. This is why learning to manage your own survival response by assessing risks and the actual severity of the threat you are facing is so important. This is actually something we have touched on before in a previous blog: Managing risk and overwhelm with animals and triangles
The issue that we have in today’s culture, at least here in Cambridge, UK, is that actual tigers have been replaced with experiences such as deadlines, Covid-19, payment due dates, job insecurities and social pressures. For many of us, these experiences and situations are triggering our stress response and survival fears in such a way that we spend a lot of our every day in the stress response as if we’re surrounded by tigers.
It is when you don’t know how to manage your stress response and don’t have strategies and First Aid to address stress that you are more vulnerable to leisure sickness or holiday illness which might be a more British way of describing it.
This article from Harvard Health describes the chemical processes of the stress response, referred to as the HPA axis, what happens in the body and how chronic stress can actually impair your health. When stress is prolonged and not the result of an immediate threat or challenge, it can be extremely unhelpful and affect your health, mood, productivity, relationships and overall quality of life.
It’s not all bad
With the focus on stress management and the ill effects of chronic stress, you may think that stress is bad and unhelpful but actually, this is not always the case. Anything can be helpful or unhelpful and that is also the case with stress. Remember the primary purpose of stress? Survival is a pretty helpful benefit of the stress response but it’s not the only one.
For any parent of a young baby, the stress response can help you through the long nights of teething. Likewise, stress can be helpful when you’ve got a work deadline approaching. It keeps you focussed on the task at hand and often helps you rise to the occasion to get it finished on time. Top athletes work with the stress response to focus their performance and help deliver outstanding results on competition days.
This insightful and helpful TED Talk by psychologist Kelly McGonigal outlines how you can use stress as a positive:
The Maintenance state / Stress state switch
Throughout each day, our bodies spend some time in a stress state and some time in a maintenance state. In healthy bodies, the switch between these two states is effortless.
The stress state happens when we are faced with a perceived threat or challenge. Take our cavemen ancestors. When they encountered sudden dangers, like a tiger, their body resources focused into the stress state to address the threat. Once the threat had been conquered, their bodies were able to return to the maintenance state, allowing them to recuperate and replenish their resources.
Fast forward to today and while many of us rarely find ourselves confronted by a tiger, we do have other challenges to deal with. For many, it can feel like we’re fending off threats every day and even a few times a day meaning that we don’t have the opportunity to recover properly in-between and so end up slumped and exhausted.
A simple analogy we often use here at The Helpful Clinic is to think of your body as a house. The less maintenance you do, the more likely it is that problems will build up such as leaky roof, faulty wiring or blocked guttering. Neglect those issues further there’s a good chance you’ll end up with even bigger problems and a hefty bill for the repairs. Guess what, your body works pretty much the same way.
That’s why you need to learn and practice the skills to work with your stress response and how to support your body’s maintenance adequately.
The three types of stress
It’s helpful to understand that there are three different types of stress: head-based, heart-based and body-based:
- Head-triggered stress — thought related, the kind of stress that arises because you are thinking anxious thoughts, simply thinking too fast or even just doing a lot of intense and demanding thinking.
- Heart-triggered stress — emotions related, the kind of stress you feel when you enter unknown situations, or that feeling of agitation you get when meeting some people, but you don’t know why as there isn’t anything threatening or challenging that you can put your finger on.
- Body-triggered stress — kicks in when you’re hungry, tired, hot, cold, etc. In other words, when your body are in a depleted state and lacking something. Adrenaline acts pretty much as the body’s overdraft facility so when the energy account is empty, it goes into the adrenaline overdraft.
The chemical chain of stress (the HPA axis) can be triggered by any one of the three triggers. Because the chemicals of stress are always the same regardless of whether it was head, heart or body triggered you usually end up with your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, i.e. your body, all affected in the stress state.
The three stages of stress
When it comes to the stages of stress, there are also three different types:
- Acute stress: The short term stress we feel when faced with a threat. Usually subsides once the perceived threat has gone, allowing our bodies to enter a maintenance state once more.
- Chronic stress: When the body’s natural defense system is frequently and over a sustained period of time in a state of stress. Leads to a reduced focus on maintenance and the general running of the body’s function and systems and increases the risk of illness and impact on relationships and mental health.
- Allostatic stress: Also referred to as ‘Allostatic overload’, this is when the body has got ‘stuck’ in the state of stress and its default state is now the stress state rather than the maintenance state. This is where symptoms are noticeable (both mental and physical health) and it’s likely to take a specific focus and effort to get the body unstuck again.
Sometimes these three stages of stress are referred to as the good, the bad and the ugly. The key takeaway here is that acute stress can be utilised for the good whereas chronic stress is like the amber light in your car’s dashboard, this is the risk indicator. By the time you’re in the allostatic state, you’re in trouble.
Helpful First Aid for Stress
Before we provide you with some First Aid for Stress tips, it is important to note that this advice is only designed to relieve stress in the short term. While you can keep applying plasters to a badly bleeding wound that really needs stitches, and afford some very short term benefits, the medium to long term prognosis probably won’t be that good.
First and foremost, it’s important to recognise when you are stressed by understanding some of the telltale signs. What lets you know that you’re stressed? Maybe you are bumping into door handles, snapping at colleagues, skipping lunch, or feeling overwhelmed. These are all signs of potentially unhelpful stress. Maybe you don’t even notice until someone else points it out. Before you can do anything about it, you need to be able to spot that it’s happening.
Learn your ABC
A helpful place to start when confronted with unhelpful stress is your ABC for Feelings. This poster shows the simple three-step process of First Aid for Feelings and yes, stress is a feeling. Click here to learn more about this helpful technique.
Once you’re aware that you are in a stressful situation or that your body is experiencing stress, take a moment to breathe and focus on different parts of your body. Actively change your posture and breathing. Orientate yourself in space and time by asking what day it is?
Now that you’ve got your own attention and you’re operating more in real-time (chances are that whatever is stressing you out hasn’t happened yet or has already happened), you can consider what’s helpful at this point. You always have a choice in terms of how to respond to what’s going on and more often than not, there may be actions that you can take to reduce the intensity of what’s going on. By stepping back to get a more helpful perspective you can experiment with how you deal with the stress you’re experiencing.
We all deal with stress somehow. Some people use alcohol, chocolate, sex, social media and other so-called ‘stress relievers’ to help disconnect from the feelings of stress and at least temporarily put their bodies into what feels more like a maintenance state. The issue here is that the switch to a constructive maintenance state hasn’t really happened. What you’ve done is mask the stress signals by distracting or disconnecting or even knock yourself out but the stress is still rumbling underneath.
What do you do? Is it helpful? Ask yourself what could be more helpful?
Slow down stress
Be aware that stress is predominantly about speed (so that you can run away from the threat in terms of the original purpose of the stress response which is survival), so it can be helpful to slow things down. But as we talked about in our previous blog on sleep, slamming the brakes on isn’t always helpful. In fact, it can lead to you skidding out of control. A more helpful approach is to slow things down slowly and in a controlled manner, like coming down the gears in the car.
To help you do this, I have produced a short (10-minute) meditation on the Insight Timer app called On Slowing Down. It is designed to help you slow down and get your bearings at a pace that suits you.
In addition to using my meditation, you can try slowing down other basic aspects of your day-to-day life too like the speed at which you are talking, walking and eating or even brushing your teeth. Anything you do can become a practice in slowing down.
More tips for 3 types of Stress
For predominantly head-triggered stress
Turn your attention to physical activities, especially ones that involve you using your hands. Now we’re not talking about strenuous activities, things like knitting can be very therapeutic, as can sudoku, colouring in, and/or gardening. The key result is to allow the stress to come out of your head and flow into activities via your hands.
For predominantly heart-triggered stress
Turn your focus to things that make you feel safer and help you feel more trust. Connect with people you feel safe with or trust. People you know, such as friends and family, or people who you relate to and can watch/listen to. It might be comforting to wrap yourself up in your favourite jumper or snuggle up with a pet. In fact, the benefits of owning a pet, including how they benefit you from a well-being point of view, are numerous. This article by Blue Cross provides some great insights into how pets can lift your mood at times when you need it.
For predominantly body-triggered stress
If you’re feeling up to it and you think it will be ultimately helpful, consider going for a walk. This will help release some of the body-triggered stress you’re experiencing. The key is not to stride but to start walking at whatever speed feels ok for you and then deliberately and gradually slow it down.
When you’re stressed it’s like all the little nerve endings just under the skin are standing on end, like the hackles of a cat or a dog so you may find it helpful to do what I refer to as Central Nervous System stroking. This is where you stroke down from your shoulders to your fingertips and your hips down to your toes. Remember from our ABC for Feelings blog that two-thirds of your brain is operating at the level of a cat or dog. In the same way that your pet feels soothed by you stroking it, the same often works for you.
Peter Levine is one of the leading experts on working with trauma and some of his techniques are helpful for all of us to help settle and soothe our bodies, regardless of whether we’re dealing with trauma or not. Here’s a video where he covers a few of them:
Finally, other things that can be helpful for alleviating body-triggered stress are yoga, tai chi and other mind-body exercises. Alternatively, you might just feel like a cold or hot shower (depending on how you’re feeling) — I encourage you to experiment with what works for you so that you know what helps and what doesn’t.
It’s important to remember that the goal when dealing with stress isn’t to eliminate it completely. As we’ve seen, stress can be helpful and enable us to achieve great feats. If you never ever felt stressed then you are probably displaying barrier behaviour, an unhelpful activity pattern that we talked about in our Cracking the code to tiredness blog.
The goal of dealing with stress is to understand when you feel stressed, what exactly you are feeling and then doing things that are helpful in the short term. That could be channelling said stress into meeting a deadline or dealing with something, or dissolving it using any of the techniques we’ve outlined when it’s unhelpful.
This blog follows on from our last one on why Sleep is your superpower. That’s because sleep and stress are closely linked, with the latter being one of the biggest contributors to insomnia and other sleeping-related disorders/difficulties.
Learning to work with your stress response and how to channel it effectively and manage it constructively will help you not just feel more relaxed and calm but also reduce the risk of you spending your holiday clutching your Kleenex and missing out on the fun and joy of holiday happiness.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor
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