The captain had just switched off the seatbelt sign when Jennifer’s heart started to race. She tried to take a deep breath, but her chest simply wouldn’t expand. It felt like a tight bandage was wrapped around her upper body. She took short, sharp breaths, but these only frightened her more. Jennifer was having her first anxiety attack. But it wasn’t because she was scared of flying. It was because of stress.
For the previous decade, Jennifer had been working in the finance and banking world. A successful career woman, she spent more than 70 hours a week telling powerful and wealthy clients how to improve their bottom line. “I was set unrealistic expectations in my work, but I thrived on the challenge of meeting them,” she reveals. “The stress of the job was thrilling. I loved it.”
But as Jennifer made her way from Sydney to Melbourne that day – to inform employees they were being made redundant – her body finally caught the attention of her mind. “It was silly because I didn’t even think I was stressed,” she says. Telling herself she was fine, Jennifer recovered from the airborne panic attack. But the episodes that followed made it harder to ignore. Years later, believing she may be having a heart attack, Jennifer finally saw a doctor. He told her she was suffering from stress-induced breathing problems.
Jennifer had an addiction to stress. And it was slowly killing her. Like love, stress means different things to different people. But the single constant in today’s fast-paced world is the status that stress endows on its owner. Those who wear pressure and strain as a badge of honour are driven, whether consciously or subconsciously, to seek out stressful situations. “People addicted to stress pursue it because they believe it to be good for them, but they ignore the increasing cost,” points out psychiatrist Dr Jeffrey Streimer.
Like many bad habits, initially it feels good. “There is no doubt that some people do enjoy the adrenaline rush that is associated with stressful situations,” says Dr Sarah Edelman, Australian Psychological Society spokesperson and author of Change Your Thinking (Allen & Unwin, $29.99). “And stress can be good for us.” The healthy type of tension is a motivator. It makes us more alert and pushes us to achieve. After all, people who have too little of it in their lives can become bored and unproductive.
The problem occurs when people, like Jennifer, come to see stress as a way of life. And when stress gets out of control, it’s harmful. “Sooner or later, people reach a tipping point and instead of becoming stretched in their lives, they become strained. Instead of being a motivator, stress does the opposite and a person can become unproductive,” says Meiron Lees, author of D-Stress: Building Resilience In Challenging Times (InnerCents, $24.95). In short, chronic stress is not only damaging to our minds, it’s also detrimental to our health.
Basically, the stress of deadlines and traffic jams evokes the same physiological reaction that occurred thousands of years ago when anxiety came in the form of sabre-toothed cats. The body responds to these “challenging” situations by releasing adrenaline into the blood, making the heart beat faster and supplying blood to the muscles. Then cortisol wears away at the body’s fat and energy stores, releasing extra glucose to fuel the brain and body. Finally, the body slows down the immune and digestive systems so it can preserve energy.
When it comes to mega-sized carnivores, the system is second to none. But while our stressors today are more regular and don’t tend to force us to bolt to safety, our bodies haven’t caught up. “Our body treats psychological stress the same way it treats physical stress and releases the same response,” says biological scientist Dr Sinan Ali. So, while your mind might panic over a deadline, your body is preparing for battle. When that fight doesn’t happen, all those hormones hang around in the body with nothing to fight. And that’s when stress becomes responsible for conditions such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, insomnia, and skin and digestive problems.
The tipping point
There are two types of stress.
The good type, eustress, motivates you to achieve your goals and leaves you feeling challenged but in control. Then there is distress, which leaves you anxious, unsettled and unmotivated. So, how do you know if your good stress is turning bad? “Look for the warning signs,” says psychologist Dr Sarah Edelman. If you start to feel shaky, tense, tight in the chest, irritable or are having problems sleeping, the stress is getting too much for you to handle. “When you feel out of control, stress usually becomes a problem,” says stress management expert Meiron Lees.
Dealing With Stress At Any Age
Top tension: Trying to establish your career and climb the corporate ladder.
Stress Solution: Stress management expert Meiron Lees says that during your 20s you need to build the confidence to handle life’s ups and downs. “Every day, write down something that went well, no matter how small. It will remind you of your achievements.”
Top tension: Managing a career with the challenges of being a parent and/or partner.
Stress Solution: Say no. “Realise that although society says you can do everything, your body says you can’t. Decide what’s important in your life and make sure your time is being devoted to that,” says Lees. For anything else, learn to delegate or just don’t go there.
Top tension: Trying to create wealth and establishing a quality of life.
Stress Solution: Have a plan. Whether you want an investment property or a strong, healthy body, work out steps to get there. Try outsourcing typical sources of anxiety by seeing a financial planner to sort out your money woes, or a personal trainer to help with your fitness.
What’s your stress type?
There’s nothing like a looming deadline to get the heart racing. It’s a stressor most of us will experience, but some people put themselves under this pressure daily by procrastinating. Dr Edelman explains that if someone is constantly doing this, then rather than simply delaying an unpleasant task, they might be avoiding their job and need to rethink their career, or be insecure about their abilities. By procrastinating, they can blame the results of the task on their lack of effort, not their capabilities.
If putting our bodies through chronic stress is a bad thing, why do we do it? “There is the idea that to be successful means you have to work long hours and always be incredibly busy,” says Lees. Many workers associate being stressed with being effective, a misconception reinforced by bosses who commend them for their efforts. These days, stress is a bragging point on par with comparing pay cheques and fitness levels.
You might think you’re complaining about work, but you may be using stress to air personal emotions that are trickier to address. Some people deliberately look for stressful situations that will allow them to release pent-up emotions caused by other aspects of their life. “People can seek out aggression to help them feel in control,” says Dr Streimer. “They create stress to discharge any frustrations they have.” And being “too stressed” to deal with anything else is the perfect way to avoid what’s really bothering you.
Your six-step recovery plan to nix that nagging feeling:
1. The first step is admitting there’s a problem. Ask yourself why you’re stressing out and whether it’s helping the situation. Doing this can give you some much-needed perspective.
2. Next, minimise unnecessary stress. If you’re a worrywart, don’t panic over your work, your weight and the wellbeing of your extended family. Instead, choose the most important thing to contemplate. If you procrastinate, try the Pomodoro Technique: when tackling a task, work for 25 minutes, then break for five. Repeat this four times then take a longer break. Thinking you only need to concentrate for a short time will help you stay motivated.
3. Work on reversing the negative effects stress has on the body. The easiest, cheapest way to do that is to get out and pound the pavement – one study found that just 18 minutes of walking three times a week lowers cortisol levels by 15 per cent. “Not only does physical activity soak up the hormones caused by stress, minimising their negative impacts, but it also disrupts your mind, which can distract you from stress, too,” says Dr Ali.
4. Look at your diet. The body reacts to dieting the same way it does when you worry about making your mortgage repayments. It’s a stressor that can raise your cortisol.