When faced with some threat in our environment, our autonomic nervous system, one of the major neural pathways in the brain, becomes activated. Activation of this neural circuity triggers our ‘flight or fight’ response. This response is our natural response to danger.
Think of a time when you were confronted with a terrifying situation. What was happening for you both physiologically and psychologically? Was your heart rate elevated? Perhaps your breathing was rapid? Were you experiencing emotions such as fear or anger?
Such bodily and emotional reactions have been selected for by evolutionary processes over millions of years to help mammals cope with threats to survival. We tend to think of stress, the collation of these physical and psychological responses as negative. This is because stress is inherently associated with discomfort.
However, stress provides us with the tools to rise to the challenge. Perhaps you have used your stress to tackle some university assignment at the last minute. Maybe you have used stress to power through work deadlines before close of business. In this sense, stress can be a positive force for achieving outcomes. Once we have averted some threat, our flight or fight response becomes quietened, and we return to homeostasis.
But what happens when this response does not switch off? What happens when threatening stimuli in our environment persist. Our flight or fight response is activated in response to all kinds of stressful events, such as arguments with loved ones. Although, it’s not exclusively activated by threats to our immediate survival. Our flight or fight response is designed to be a temporary response to a temporary crisis. The long-term consequences of sustained stress are numerous. These include high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, anxiety, and depression. Consequently, it’s important to recognise when your stress is no longer productive.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Do I see my tasks to complete as chores rather than challenges?
- Am I irritable and ‘blowing up’ in response to trivial matters?
- Am I ruminating over work and personal responsibilities and finding it difficult to disconnect from these thoughts?
If you answered ‘yes’ in response to these questions. You could be stressed and running the risk of ‘burning out’. A state where you physically and/ or mentally cannot sustain further activation of this stress response.
Strategies to Manage Stress
Fortunately, there are things we can do to alleviate stress and minimise the risk of burnout.
- Firstly, consider strategies you have used in the past to cope with stress (exercising, socialising and watching television). These strategies tend to be pushed to the sidelines when we prioritise tasks which are maintaining the stress.
- Consider speaking with your work management and family. Is it possible to delegate certain tasks to minimise the burden? Are you in a position to take leave to disconnect and recuperate?
- Meditation is excellent at quieting the physical and emotion loop of stress. That is, quieting the physical symptoms (heart rate, respiratory function, and muscular tenseness), thereby quieting the emotional symptoms (irritability).
- It’s also helpful to contact EAP. Counselling is an opportunity for emotional release, to build insight into your stress-related triggers, thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It allows you to develop skills to combat stress and build resilience for future stressful events.