cracking the code to stress

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Almost 70 million! That’s the number of UK doctor’s appointments in 2019 for stress-related illnesses, reported by Statista; it’s jaw-dropping.  Now consider that the UK population as a whole is 68.2 million people. It’s equivalent to every single person in the entire country having at least one trip to their GP.

Cracking the code to stress

As April is Stress Awareness Month, we’re continuing with the stress theme and building on the learnings in our last blog (here).

Here, we’re going to look at how stress has changed from our caveman days to modern times.  With that in mind, we’ll then look at how to understand stress intensity; how to track your stress and what to track; and what happens when the body gets stuck in the stress response state and it becomes unhelpful.

How stress has changed from Caveman to Modern Man

Throughout each day we spend some proportion of our time in the Stress state and some in the Maintenance state.  When we are healthy and fit we move effortlessly between these two states as needed.  

When we respond to a challenge or a situation (imagine a caveman facing a sudden threat like a tiger) all our resources are mobilised and directed at the immediate threat; this is the Stress state.  Once the caveman has dealt with the threat, either by successfully running away from it or by knocking the tiger out, the caveman can rest and recuperate to replenish the resources used;  this is the Maintenance state.  Once replenished, he’s back on form. This can be visualised like this:

caveman stress & maintenance

We may not be facing tigers on every street corner in today’s reality and although the threats may have changed, the physical response is the same. To your body a threat is a threat and the chemicals of the stress state respond right on cue. For many of us the threats now are more likely to be deadlines, money worries and professional and personal relationships. Indeed, a  recent survey found that four out of five people reported work as main source of stress, followed by money worries. Whilst during caveman days these spikes would happen every now and again, fast forward to today and they can feel pretty constant. 

From when the alarm jolts you into your day, till you fall asleep, the day can feel like an obstacle course of challenges and threats.  This means that your body is having to switch much more frequently from Stress to Maintenance state and back again.  This in itself is energy intensive which then adds an additional burden on your body and the graph looks more like this:

modern man stress & maintenance

Why stress can be both helpful and harmful 

Stress is not categorically helpful or harmful. Our approach is that it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.  By getting curious, learning about stress and the different aspects to consider, you can utilise the power of your Stress state in the most helpful way for you and reduce the risk of it becoming harmful.

The three stages of stress are possibly the best guide to understand how and when your stress state goes from helpful to harmful. 

Acute stress

The body’s natural defense system includes going into a state of stress when feeling under threat. Once the threat has been dealt with or avoided, the body returns to a state that is more focused on maintenance and the general running of the body’s function and systems. Acute means that it is a short term experience for the body.

Chronic stress

This is when the body’s natural defence system is frequently and over a period of time, in a state of stress. As a result, there is a reduced focus on maintenance and the general running of the body’s function and systems. This is physically costly as not only is the Stress state energy intensive for the body to do but important maintenance gets neglected.  Over time this affects not only our ability to perform but also quality of life as well as our physical, mental and social health. 

Allostatic stress

Also referred to as ‘Allostatic overload’ or maladaptive stress response.  This is when the body has got ‘stuck’ in the state of stress and it has become the baseline state, instead of the Maintenance state. Even when action is taken to shift to the maintenance state, it only has a temporary effect and the body quickly returns to the baseline of allostatic stress. At this point the physical, mental and social health impact is limiting your ability to function and you’re dealing with at least some level of illness.

How to score stress intensity 

Do you have a sense of the intensity of your stress?  Do you know how to score just how stressed you are? 

It can be helpful to track your stress indicators and score them in terms of intensity. It’s a bit like taking your utilities meter readings or taking your car for the annual test (in the UK this is called MOT).  Without knowing where you are at now, it’s hard to gauge whether you need to take action and make any changes.

So let’s start with the key tool you’ll be using to score the intensity of your stress on a scale of 1-10, with 0 being barely noticeable and 10 being panic attack or severe physical impact.  The scale brings two things together: how intense the stress feels and how long it takes you to calm down from it.

If you read our last blog, you may remember that the stress hormones can give us an energy boost that can be helpful.  Athletes and performers often use this to good effect so this isn’t so much about never experiencing stress but to what intensity and how quickly you can calm down after and shift back to a maintenance state.  This is often referred to as recovery time or bounce back time. Here’s the scale:

stress intensity scale

How to track your stress 

Tracking your stress, like tracking anything, means making notes. There is always a cost/benefit analysis to tracking anything. If you take too few notes, you won’t have enough information to make an informed assessment.  If you take lots of notes, you’re likely to get bogged down with too much information and it will have cost you more time and effort than the benefit of the information will give you. 

This is why we recommend keeping track for 5 days give or take two.  That means no fewer than 3 days and no more than 7 days. 

What to track

Now you know how to score your stress and how to track it, let’s look at what it is that you’re going to track. Do you know your stress indicators? We outlined a few indicators to look out for in our last blog here.

Here’s a refresher to give you some things to look out for:

  • Physical indicators include: increased heart rate, sweating, tunnel vision, headaches, sleep issues, increased/decreased appetite.
  • Mental indicators include: initial alertness which then drops into struggling to think. Losing sense of humour, struggling to make decisions. Feeling bad about yourself.
  • Social indicators include: avoiding or clinging onto people, being impatient, being inappropriate, oversharing, saying yes even though you don’t want to.

Stress-score tracker

We recommend tracking three indicators in each of your three health dimensions: physical, mental and social.  Don’t worry if you forget for a day or two, in fact we’ve included that in our example here of how it might look.  We’re calling this person Charlie:

stress score tracker

In this example the overall score for 5 days is 29 with various clues about the indicators in the three dimensions.  With an average daily score across the period of nearly 6 (29 points divided by 5 days) this places Charlie is at amber using the stress intensity scale. 

Using Charlie’s score as an example, being consistently in amber throughout this period suggests that they may be suffering from chronic stress.  This is a concern as if this goes on or the average score increases, they risk going into allostatic stress because of the harmful effects of chronic stress. 

N.B. If you have been working with a doctor or other healthcare professionals for stress-related symptoms, and they have advised you to track differently than we are, please follow their advice.

We’ve added the stress score tracker here for you to download with the stress intensity scale

stress score tracker

What now?

It’s quite possible that you’re reading this and thinking that it would be a great idea to identify some stress indicators and do your own tracking but then there’s just never enough time or it’s just another thing to add to your overwhelm.  So, you don’t actually do anything. This adds to your anxieties about health and the impact of stress on you, your family and work. For you, our advice is twofold: 

What’s your ‘Why bother’?

This is our second favourite question after ‘Is it helpful’. If you’ve not got a strong enough reason to prioritise this, chances are you won’t. If you can’t do this for yourself, then do this for someone you love (be specific). Remember the flight attendant’s instructions: put the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting others.  Read our blog: Self care = caring for others if you need more support with this.  It includes a link to an excellent 10-minute video about how quickly your ability to function drops when your oxygen drops.

Find yourself an accountability ally 

When you team up with someone, your chances of following through increase greatly. They can check in to make sure you’re doing the tracking and when you struggle they will remind you why you are bothering to do this. Notice we say when not if because we assume you’ll struggle. It’s to be expected. And if they are getting curious about their own stress, you can help them keep track.  Together, you can tackle what you might struggle to do on your own.

Remember feelings are information and it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.  When you’ve got up-to-date information about what’s going on for you, it’s much easier to make helpful choices and changes that benefit you, your health and your loved ones.  Go gently yourself as you gather your information and go well. 

We’d love to hear how you get on and what you discover. 

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor