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Stress, stress, stress !!!! “I can’t cope!!!”

Words never heard in your house....right?  Exams coming, stressed out teenage behaviour .... not a feature of your family ..... Right? ...... hmmm ....

Stress is bad for you ... .Right? .................. Wrong!

Stress itself is not necessarily bad for you. Stress is natural, stress is stimulating, stress is normal. What matters with stress is not how great the stress is, but how you respond to it.

For example, imagine an athlete, on the track ready to go. The adrenaline flows, the body prepares, the stress grows in the silence before the starter’s pistol fires. It is the stress that tensions and prepares the body to explode from the starting blocks and into the race. Or, imagine your far distant ancestor hunting with just a spear and a smile who sees a dangerous animal in the long grass. The body prepares to fight or flee. It’s natural, and, for your ancestor potentially life-saving whilst for the athlete it is win or lose.

So why do we see stress as negative?  Why do our children struggle with “exam stress”?

One of the problems we face in our society is that sometimes we lack natural stress busters. Under stress, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol to prepare you for action. But what if you are sat at a desk preparing for an exam? Or sat behind a desk dealing with a difficult customer?Or sitting talking on the telephone with a difficult client? Or at home when your son comes in and lets loose about his work? The body’s principle natural means of bringing back down those levels of cortisol and adrenaline is not available - physical exertion. You can’t fight or run, so then the cortisol and adrenaline remain in your system. They still stop your digestion, change your blood flow, raise your breathing, constrict your skin and perhaps bring you out in a sweat, and you feel stressed.   

Some recent research suggests that even this, in itself, may not bad for us. What does cause damage is our mental attitude to it. If we think of stress as bad for us - then it is. If we say that stress is harming us, then it is. But there is another way to see it. If we accept that stress is the natural mechanism of our body preparing us for action, then stress helps us to prepare for the challenge ahead. If I prepare for a race, my natural body reaction, which I can call stress, will help me to run better. Look at it the other way around:  I am preparing for an exam, I am totally chilled, I have no sense of urgency, no sense of fear - what will this do to my performance?

The trick is to maintain a positive attitude, to recognise the sense of stress as part of my body’s natural preparation and embrace it and carry on sensibly with an appropriate response. This should help me stop getting things out of proportion and keep my emotional response as it should be - focused on the problem at hand. That is not to say that I ignore those many stress reduction techniques - breathing exercises, physical exercise, meditation, good sleeping, good diet, etc. But it is easier to work with that which we see as a friend rather than fight against that which we perceive to be our foe.

Mental Health Awareness Week is 14-20 May. This year’s focus is upon stress and stress management - not irrelevant at this time of year in schools. So this is a good time to think: “how do I respond to stress? - mine, and my children’s?”. Do I embrace it as my strength or fight it as my enemy? One of these will help me to perform better, and the other may make me feel ill and underperform.

If you would like to know more about this, then a very interesting TED talk can be found here with Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU

Reverend Hewitt, Well-Being Coach