Imagine you’re on your way to meet friends at a bar. You’re late and stuck behind a slow-moving van when the entire street lurches into darkness. Suddenly that man crossing the street in front of you looks like a potential robber. The cars around you seem to be hemming you in. Everyone and everything appears dangerous. You’ve gone from slightly stressed to completely strung-out in an instant.
When you finally get to the bar, your friends are deep in conversation about blackouts, crime and their plans to leave the country. What should have been a light-hearted, fun-filled evening has turned into one riddled with anxiety.
It’s as though a cloud of dark heaviness is hanging above us right now. Most of us are unaware of the extent to which worrying issues are affecting us. But if a high level of stress continues over a long period, paralyzing feelings of being overwhelmed can set in. Many of us could be in the heart of what is termed as a ‘stress storm’. Have you ever been in the situation where, because of stress, you couldn’t remember the name of one of your own family members? Perhaps you’re stuck in a depression, or maybe you’ve accomplished something great but the next morning you don’t want to get out of bed because you’re so down.
These are indications that you are caught in a stress storm – a place filled with fear and confusion, where you’re no longer thinking rationally. If this sounds familiar, read on to understand better what’s happening to you – and how to get to grips with it.
Why are we so Stressed?
In the USA we have a set of stressors to contend with – high crime rates, rising costs of food and gas, and an economic situation in which retrenchments are increasingly common. These compound everyday stressors such as work, family conflicts and financial pressures. We don’t let our bodies or minds relax, and develop distorted perceptions about ourselves – for example, we may think we’re accepted only if we’re performing well.
When people are taxed on so many levels, their resilience rapidly erodes. Most people can deal with one stressful area in their lives – even two – but few people can function optimally when every area of their life is affected by instability and stress.
Our bodies are built to handle stress in short, sharp bursts, but when there is no let-up, stress can in fact be toxic for our bodies. When we’re stressed, our adrenal glands pump out cortisol. This ‘stress hormone’ is preparing our muscles for the fight-or-flight response triggered when our lives are in danger. All energy is diverted from other functions, such as digestion, giving our bodies a burst of energy to ensure we can fight or flee if necessary. Modern stressors, however, such as traffic jams, don’t come and go quite as fast as, say, an attacking buffalo. Consequently, the cortisol and adrenaline that our stressors produce never leave our bodies – our lives are constantly turned to a high-alert setting.
On a physical level – which is where symptoms are easiest to detect and treat – stress may show up as migraines, headaches, muscle aches and pains, skin breakouts (acne, psoriasis, eczema) and stomach problems (including irritable bowel syndrome and constipation). Emotionally, we become more prone to outbursts of temper, mood swings and negativity. Mentally, we feel less able to cope. Our outlook becomes distorted and it becomes very difficult to keep our perspective. Highly stressed people become ‘reactive’. This means they react more to everything in their lives, from the lack of milk in the fridge to the geyser bursting. We become so overwhelmed that we literally get ‘beside ourselves’.
Living on Autopilot
Jane, 27, a fashion planner, knows this feeling all too well. While working in a high-pressure corporate fashion job reporting to a demanding boss, she was being pushed to work longer hours and perform tasks she didn’t feel prepared for.
‘As the pressure built up over about five months, I began feeling increasingly anxious. My short-term memory started to let me down and I would forget things I was meant to do. For example, I’d walk into a room and then go blank, forgetting why I was there. I felt confused all the time and began talking more slowly and slurred my words. I lost a lot of weight and at the height of my stress my right arm would get very tense and feel taut. It’s a scary place to be. It can feel as though you don’t know yourself – as though you’re having a mental meltdown.’
This feeling is not uncommon. Stressed people often describe themselves as being on autopilot – as though they’re participating in the show of their own life, but not starring. They’re overwhelmed and often feel clumsy, awkward and off-centre. They may forget names of people or even the names of simple, everyday objects. This is due to the prolonged periods of cortisol production, but also, because we’re trying to remember too many things.
High levels of stress can affect our relationships too. Some people, like Jane, are too tired to go out and socialize, and often feel they’re a burden on other people. ‘Friends tried to help,’ remembers Jane. ‘I’d lost a lot of weight so they could see I was in distress but they didn’t really know how to help other than telling me to chill out’.
Others may drink more to be more sociable or in an attempt to forget, so the glass of wine suddenly turns into a bottle of wine. According to research women could be more prone to developing stress-related addictions (such as cocaine addiction) than men. The good news, though, is that stress is our body’s way of telling us to do something. But what?
The suggestions below are a good start. Don’t knock them for sounding obvious – at least not till you’ve actually tried them.
Understand that there are certain things in your life that you have control over and others that you don’t. If, for example, you are concerned about the political situation, vote. If you’re concerned about crime, join or start a neighborhood-watch program. Be proactive about things you can influence and let go of those you can’t.
At work, if you find yourself getting stressed or anxious, go somewhere quiet and concentrate on your breathing. Imagine your breathing is like waves breaking on a beach. Maintain a regular rhythm. Imagine you are breathing all the way down to your toes when you breathe in, and all the way back up again as you breathe out.
Don’t hand your power over to food and drink. That fatty hamburger isn’t going to release your stress. Rather ask, ‘What will this drink or food do to my body over the long term?’ Cut down on sugar. Sugar gives you a temporary lift followed by a downer. If you’re craving something sweet, try eating fruit or a handful of nuts. Drink lots of water. Stress tends to dehydrate the body. Keeping your body hydrated will lessen stress symptoms such as fatigue and headaches.
One of the most effective ways of dealing with stress is to exercise. Try to do some form of exercise at least three times a week for 30 to 60 minutes.
Develop a Positive Internal Dialogue
This is a powerful way to help ourselves when we’re stressed. We tend to feel anxious about things we have no control over (the future, other people), and most of what we fear never happens. Remain in the moment. If you start to stress about tomorrow, remind yourself that you can only live today – tomorrow does not yet exist.
Talk to a Professional
Jane consulted a psychologist, who helped her see that getting through her stress storm meant removing herself from her stressful job. ‘I took three months off, stayed home and just slept, watched TV and did nothing.’ She saw her psychologist for a few months and gradually became her old self again, but this time with the tools to recognize and avoid another stress storm.