How should we think about stress and the ways it affects us? There are some fairly complex and detailed ways of answering this but let's keep things simple. Think of stress as a cake. By far the biggest portion of this cake will be made up of worry and the rest can be thought of in terms of anxiety, depression and bodily changes that result from stress. Stress is the way you feel when you are under pressure. These pressures can vary hugely from all the little frustrations that make up a day, to profound events such as the loss of a loved one.
If we're lucky the bad days are offset by the good. Unfortunately the day may come when you become aware that your brain has slipped a gear. The way stress affects you may be different to the next person but, if we assume the more common elements, you start to forget things like the names of relatives. It gets harder to concentrate, you feel more cynical, more unhappy, and more overwhelmed by all the stuff that seems to be going on around you. Trivial things may assume an importance they don't deserve while important things get overlooked. These are just a few examples of what may become a downward spiral of stress and it's what psychologist Dr. Frank Lawless calls a stress storm. You know when you're in a stress storm, Frank says, when you can't rationally talk yourself through a situation that you know is irrational.
Finding a person who isn't under stress is a near impossibility, at least so far as the average Western lifestyle is concerned. We may seem to have adapted well to stress, but did you know the World Health Organization predicts that at this rate, anxiety and depression will be the number one disease in 20 years time? The line between coping and finding ourselves in the midst of a stress storm is fine indeed. Just one event, or even a comment, can be the tipping point.
Once the mind gets locked into a way of thinking it can be extremely difficult to pull it around. Nerve activity is associated with thoughts and actions and the brain starts to allocate more resource to something it thinks must be important. Before you know it your worry has grown legs and started to run
Frank Lawless recommends a few ways to calm the stress storm. Music, he suggests, is one of the oldest yet most reliable ways to provide an alternative stimulus to the brain. Take your iPod with you he suggests. Anxiety also has an immediacy about it that pressures you to worry now and keep worrying. Teaching our brains that we'll concentrate on issues later will reduce tension. Thirdly, the 'stop' technique is a well established tool used in cognitive therapy. It's about being aware of your own worrying and then yelling "stop" (you might want to choose the right time and place for this). It's surprisingly effective and even if you don't shout out you can yell "stop" in your head.
Because anxiety and worry is a tenacious beastie you need to persevere and hold on to what is effective. Keep practicing the alternatives to worrying and you'll feel the rewards. Don't let up however or it'll find a way of creeping back in.
Lawlis, F.G (2008) Redefining Depression and Anxiety for "Real" Help. Psychology Today. July 1 2008. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/redefining-stress/200807/redefining-depression-and-anxiety-real-help