Stress is an experience that we can all have at times, the feeling of being under pressure and perhaps having too much on our plates. There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling stressed occasionally. In fact, in can be an important and useful response to things going on in our environment. It can galvanise us to take action when it is necessary or alert us to changing circumstances which we need to respond to. Human beings are designed to feel stress sometimes and our bodies produce adrenaline and cortisol to help us take the appropriate action in these situations.
However, there is a difference between feeling stressed in a way that is useful to us and suffering from chronic stress which is overwhelming and gets in the way of our ability to cope. It is a very physical experience; it can affect your heart rate, your blood pressure, your immune system and it can produce feelings of panic such as not being able to breathe, sweating excessively or feeling that your mouth has become very dry.
It can also affect your moods, making you angry or very upset and unable to calm down or soothe yourself. In turn, this can have a significant effect on your ability to make or sustain relationships as you may feel like you are constantly fighting for survival and unable to relax at all.
Other people may feel alienated by your behaviour or unable to cope with the intensity of your feelings. It can often be perplexing to friends, partners or colleagues who cannot make sense of what is happening.
Ongoing stress can have a lasting and damaging effect on your physical and mental health. It can lead to being unable to cope at work and even feeling that you will break down. At times, when people suffer like this too long and without help, it may become difficult to function at all. This is not something that you are simply imagining or a sign that you are too weak to cope. Studies carried out on infants show that prolonged exposure to stressful situations has a lasting physical impact on the development of the brain.
If you are feeling that your stress levels are having a damaging effect on your life and your ability to function, it may well be that it would be helpful to talk to a professional about your problems and think about ways in which you can cope.
Whilst stress may be an appropriate response to external pressures it may also be related to internal pressures that you might need help to think about. The way we feel as adults and the extent to which we are able to be resilient in our lives can have a lot to do with our early experiences, patterns and expectations which we have developed over a long period of time and talking to a professional can be a helpful way of stepping back and reflecting on these.
Reactions to stress may well have developed during infancy and have been influenced by early attachments. We learn our emotional responses in relation to our caregivers and often difficulties managing and regulating our feelings are handed down from generation to generation.
Because our problems in this area are sometimes very deep rooted, it is not always possible for the people around us to make sense of our reactions which can be perceived as over the top, unreasonable or extreme. It is not always clear how our past experiences are governing our present-day responses to situations, sometimes in a detrimental way and a therapist can help us to know more about this.
Some therapists will work with you to think about some of the deeper causes of your problems and others will focus more on strategies to manage your feelings in the present moment. Before you embark on therapy, it can be helpful to consider whether you might need more short-term, solution-focussed work or longer-term support. Whatever you decide, a confidential and non-judgemental space in which to start speaking of your difficulties can be an important step on the road to healing.