2.2 How do you respond to stress?

All mammals, including people, have three ways of responding to stress:

  • Social engagement – making eye contact, listening to others and feeling understood. This can calm you down and help avoid defensive actions such as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It helps you think more clearly, and things like blood pressure and heart rate continue to work normally.
  • Mobilisation (or ‘fight or flight’ response). This is when we need (or think we need) to defend ourselves or run away from danger. Our bodies prepare for action, releasing those hormones we referred to earlier, and our digestive and immune systems stop working. Once the danger has passed, the nervous system calms the body, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and returning to normal.
  • Immobilisation – this is the most primitive response to stress, and is used only when the other responses have failed. A bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car, you may find yourself ‘frozen’ or panic stricken. Some people have even lost consciousness if their life is threatened. This state helps them to survive high levels of physical pain, but until they come round again their nervous system may not be able to return to its pre-stress state.
(Source: adapted from Leonard Cheshire Disability, 2014)

Activity 3

Allow about 10 minutes
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While social engagement is probably the healthiest response to stress, it’s not always possible to respond in this way. Many of us have become conditioned to responding to every stressful situation by going straight into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which over time can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the ageing process and leave you vulnerable to mental and emotional problems.

A 2015 survey by Direct Line Insurance found the top 10 stressful situations for British people were:

  1. Not being able to sleep (46 per cent)
  2. Losing your keys (37 per cent)
  3. Being stuck in traffic when already late (35 per cent)
  4. Losing an important paper or document (33 per cent)
  5. Nowhere to park (32 per cent)
  6. Printer not working when you need to print something (31 per cent)
  7. Running out of battery on your phone whilst out (31 per cent)
  8. Discovering you are out of toilet roll whilst on the loo (30 per cent)
  9. Dealing with machine operated customer service (26 per cent)
  10. Forgetting your bank card when paying for an item (25 per cent) 
(Source: Morgan, 2015)

Stress overload

Our bodies can’t always tell the difference between daily stressors and life-threatening events. If you’re stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam on your journey to work, or a mountain of bills, for example, your body can still react as if you’re facing a life-or-death situation.

Many health problems are caused or made worse by stress, including:

list itemslist items
  • pain of any kind
  • heart disease
  • digestive problems
  • sleep problems
  • depression
  • weight problems
  • auto immune diseases
  • skin conditions, such as eczema.

2.3 How to manage stress