When stress becomes a disorder.. a CBT view

Is your stress taking over? Here’s how to find out, and fix it.

Thousands of Irish people who are suffering from elevated and dangerous levels of stress as a result of the economic crisis are in danger of developing anxiety or depression. The dangers of stress are not widely enough understood – people need to monitor the changes stress is wreaking on their lives and behaviours, and become proactive about addressing the issue through stress management, and/or seeking assistance, if they feel it has become unmanageable.

For every one of us who have lost a job, or fear losing a job, or who struggle with mortgages, debt, or simply holding our families and lives together, stress is an every day occurrence. In a recession as deep as this one, the stress of battling through on a daily basis – dreading the postman and his bills, praying that the children don’t come home needing money for school tours or books – can become unbearable.

The World Health Organisation says that one in every four of us will suffer from an actual mental illness at some point in our lives – but that two thirds of us will never seek the help we need. Often, people become stressed to the point where it is actually debilitating, but don’t realise what is happening to them. They write it off as an inevitable consequence of the changes this downturn is bringing them, or say that they are just a ‘worrier’ or that it’s ’just how they are’, or they might put it down to a physical illness that has them feeling ‘run down’.

A survey last week for the HSF health plan in Ireland found that more than 50% of us feel more stressed than we did a year ago. 58% of those said that they couldn’t afford help to deal with it. Four in ten of us know somebody who has had to take time out from work in the last 12 months because of stress. Stress is real, it exists, it has negative effects, and too often, we ignore it.

Do you wonder if your stress has become a disorder? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you tired most of the time?
  • Do you get emotionally upset more often?
  • Do you often have a sick feeling in your stomach?
  • Do you often feel dizzy when contemplating how you’re going to manage your situation?
  • Do you get ill more than you used to, with headaches, or cold sores, for example?
  • Are you constantly worrying?
  • Are you prone to self criticism?
  • Do you often feel helpless and hopeless and unable to cope?
  • Do you feel kind of afraid a lot of the time?

If the answer to most of those was yes, it might be time to take the situation seriously and take steps to nip it in the bud and even reverse it – before it takes over. Take a trip to your GP and have a chat about it if you feel you need professional help. It’s not ‘just you’. You’re almost certainly suffering the effects of stress, but it’s totally fixable – and you don’t need to feel ashamed – there are a lot of people in the same boat.

Let’s take a look at stress and how to immediately address the issue yourself:

The obvious tips: The old cliché of following a good nutritious diet and exercising regularly to combat stress is a cliché because it’s true! Those are among the immediate things to address.

  • Diet: it is important that you make efforts to put in place a good nutritious diet – yes, that means fruit and vegetables – you need your basic vitamins. Oily fish is a great idea (for the Omega 3). Less white carbs and sugars, more protein, more wholewheat… Go easy on the coffee and fizzy drinks. Come on, you know what you need to do there.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise is CRUCIAL for body balance. The stress hormones produced by Fight or Flight cause all the damage – when we perceive a situation as a danger or hazard to us, our bodies immediately go into Fight or Flight, which was designed during evolution to help humans survive. It’s an immediate pumping up of the body to handle a physical emergency (developed because a sabre toothed tiger about to tear you apart was an occupational hazard of neandarthol man’s hunting and gathering – you’d need to either fight hard or run fast to survive, and Fight or Flight primed the body for just that). This is a primal process that we’re stuck with for good or ill – and the anxious person will view many things as a ‘tiger’ inappropriately.. but the body doesn’t distinguish between a physical or pyschological threat, it will, within nanoseconds, pump you up by releasing the stress hormones Adrenaline and Cortisol, which speed up the bloods circulation (thumping heart), flood the lungs with oxygen (restricted breathing/hyperventilating) and temporarily shut down systems not needed to fight or run (namely your digestive system and your immune system). That’s not good, right? And if we’re constantly perceiving events as if they are an invisible tiger – we’re going to cause massive physical and mental wear and tear as our bodies stay in a simmering process of Fight or Flight. The cortisol is the most dangerous hormone – shutting down the systems gives you the sick feeling in your stomach, maybe irritable bowel syndrome, maybe diarrhea.. and compromising the immune system makes you vulnerable to colds etc – it’s also blamed for strokes, heart attacks, depositing fat around the middle, and even premature aging (it breaks down muscle). And the whole thing will have you in a permanent state of fatigue! These things you’re feeling are very real.
    TigerFaceClick on the Fight or Flight post for more information on this. Knowing what is happening and why can be hugely helpful in dealing with the uncomfortable physical effects of stress and anxiety (especially when they escalate to panic attacks). Exercise gives an outlet for the extreme physical priming of fight or flight – it will stop the production of the stress hormones and will elevate your seratonin/dopamine levels for the ‘feel good’ high people talk about. It will also reactivate your immune system and return your body to ‘homeostasis’ (balance). Studies indicate exercise is a potent anti-depressant / anti-anxiety, and is a great sleep aid.  The major results only last for a few hours though, which is why regular (maybe 5 times a week) exercise is the way to go. It doesn’t have to be a gym – brisk walking is fine. Make it a habit and a routine, get an iPod and enjoy the journey.
  • Relaxation – when we truly relax, we release relaxation hormones that neutralise the stress hormones, and return us to homeostasis. So you should make regular efforts to indulge in pursuits that you know relax you – a candlit bath, a massage, yoga, a movie, meditation… whatever relaxes you. You should also learn breathing exercises, as the body overloads on oxygen when it is fearful which causes physical distress – in fact the adrenaline stimulous and oxygen overload causes our scatty ‘dizziness’.
  • Socialise: Studies show that those who have a good network of family and friends weather these storms more easily – anxiety and depression tends to cause avoidance/isolating behaviour, make efforts to avoid this. If you do not have a large social network, join a club! This need not necessarily cost big bucks – have a look at http://www.meetup.com and check out what’s happening in your city. (No it’s not a dating site! It’s a global social networking site with meetup groups for all sorts of things – coffee meetups, bookclubs, hiking, salsa, women’s groups etc. Though hey, nothing wrong with dating sites either!).

The not so obvious – CBT! : You can strengthen your ‘coping skills’ by recognising how stress causes us to develop unhealthy automatic negative thinking that is the cause of much of our own extreme emotional ‘upsettness’. We can actually learn to develop healthy thinking with an option of ‘Low Intensity CBT’ – this is practical ‘guided self help’ that effectively teaches you to become your own therapist. CBT is ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ – the world’s fastest growing therapy for all emotional health issues. Low intensity CBT is a fast intervention version that teaches you new coping skills by taking therapy out of the counseling rooms. It will help you to adjust the way your interpret and process events so that not everything is a ‘tiger’ that will immediately launch you into flight or flight. It’s a very practical use of modern psychotherapy tools that may just give you back your calm and your life, no matter what is thrown at you.

The basic theory of CBT is that it is not an event in your life that causes your upsettness per se – it’s how you interpret and process the event that determines your emotional response – which triggers the physical response – which causes self-defeating and self-sabotaging behavioural responses. The event just influences you – it’s your style of thinking that dictates your feelings. If you learn to think realistically and in proportion to events based on rational evidence based healthy thinking, you’ll be a calmer and happier person. It can be life changing.

Just look around at the other people in your life that face the same (or worse) challenges, but handle it in a different way and continue to take enjoyment out of life. Their interpretation and processing of things that happen is healthy and rational.

You can learn to understand and identify and manage negative thinking and behaviour with CBT methods and techniques – you can develop new skills in self-management to help you cope no matter what life throws at you! Human beings cause our own levels of upsettness through our thinking – and the good news is that we can uncause it.

If any of this sounds like you, then click through this blog for more useful information on CBT and Fight or Flight

It is absolutely essential that people realise that they can do something practical and proactive about their emotional health when they’re very unhappy with the way they’re feeling and behaving. It is nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t have to suffer in silence.

My 15 minuted guided relaxation: Click to link to my Soundcloud page to play this audio….

Good luck!

Check out my website at http://www.CBTandFeelingGood.com for sessions / training.

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