We see the effects of stress every day.
The frazzled mother shouting at her child in the supermarket while trying to work out which of her cards to use to pay for the shopping this week, the suited businessman downing a whisky at 6pm on a Friday evening after what felt like an endless week at work, the hurried walk of a student weighed down with library books that are overdue, the friend who has seemed to have lost their appetite, the dark circles under their eyes.
According to the Life Stressors Scale (Holmes, T. & Rahe, R. 1967) different life situations can be categorised into levels of stress. On the scale, if your score is above 100 you are classified as being under high stress.
I calculated my score over the past 6 months.
Change of job and job hunting: 36.
Moving House: 20.
Moving Country: 25.
Searching for a new place to live: 25.
Financial Concerns: 38.
My final stress score is 144.
This isn’t even counting the smaller amounts of stress that come with job hunting, unemployment for any length of time, not to mention living in the midst of an economic crisis.
In discussion earlier this week I realised that I had been experiencing a continual undercurrent of stress since around March this year, and possibly before that. I’ve forgotten what it is like not to feel that knot in the pit of your stomach that you try to ignore as best you can in order to get on with daily life.
The way in which stress will make its presence known can differ from person to person. In some stress manifests itself as anger and frustration. This anger is most often taken out on people close to them and can be destructive within relationships. In others stress can manifest itself as intense action, going full-speed ahead until the stressful time is over, often leading to an early burn out. Stress can show itself physically, draining a person of that healthy glow, causing them to lose or gain weight, long nights of insomnia, or quite often displaying itself very simply through an uncontrollable burst of tears.
The underlying effects of stress upon the human body have become clearer in recent years. Stress effects not only the Central Nervous System, causing anxiety, depression and fatigue, but also has devastating effects on many of the body’s other systems. Stress has been linked to impaired heart function and angina, and also raising blood pressure through constriction of the peripheral blood vessels. The Digestive system can be affected causing stomach upsets, ulcers, IBS and Gastritis. The respiratory system is not forgotten with stress having links to asthma. Stress causes tension in the muscles and joints, leading to backache and general aches and pains. As harmless as that may seem, the fact it can sometimes lead to arthritis makes stress seem a lot more sinister. When we are stressed our immune system is weakened making us more prone to viruses, allergies and, somewhat terrifyingly, malignant cell changes. The endocrine and reproductive systems are not left out either. Stress has been linked with menstrual and thyroid disorders, not to mention infertility. While all of that is going on under the skin, on the outside stress can cause eczema, psoriasis and rashes, as well as accelerating the aging process.
‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ – Plato
There is a children’s book called ‘The Huge Bag Of Worries‘ which gives a beautifully simplified view of stress through the eyes of a child, Jenny. She carries her worries around with her in a big, blue bag. The more worries she has, the heavier and more foreboding the bag becomes. This metaphor carries well to adult situations and the way in which we deal with stress as adults. Jenny eventually opens the bag of worries and looks at each of them one by one, sharing them with a friend, talking them through and finding the bag becoming lighter and lighter each time.
In these days of economic uncertainty, high unemployment, an ever-increasing cost of living, compulsory redundancies, high divorce rates, and competitiveness in the workplace – it is clear we live in times of high levels of stress. While you are busy fighting your own battles and keeping your own head above water, it is very easy to forget that most others around you are doing the same. We deal with our stress as individuals, trudging our own daily paths, and nursing our bundle of stress.
Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of Jenny’s book.