DAY ONE – MONDAY
One of the most notable symptoms of stress is the sense of isolation and loneliness the sufferer feels. If you were one of the 450 people who came to the Stress Control class given by me and Dr Alison Rooney in Malahide last September 16, your first lesson would have been that we all suffer from stress.
This can take many forms – palpitations, panic attacks or fear of losing control of one's bowels or bladder. All of these symptoms are normal, but those suffering them believe it only happens to them.
Stress is like blood pressure. It goes up and down all day and night, depending on what circumstances we find ourselves in. Just like blood pressure, stress only becomes problematic when it stays up and we have difficulty getting it down.
And that usually occurs when a number of stresses come together.
There are many sources of stress. An obvious one for most households is finance. Raising children is as stressful as it is rewarding. Caring for an elderly parent can be stressful. Relationship problems can be as stressful as is the absence of a relationship in our lives.
Bereavement can be a hugely significant stressor. And it is rarely just one aspect of our lives that is stressful. When three or four of them come together, life can become intolerable.
When we encounter stress symptoms, the symptoms themselves become a source of stress. The feeling of loss of control and not knowing what is causing the symptoms make the stress even worse. At this point we may enter a vicious cycle in the way we talk to ourselves.
We frequently tell ourselves we are not coping, or that the stress symptoms are proof of our inadequacy. This type of self-talk makes us feel even worse.
One of the most common reactions to stress or anxiety is the 'fight or flight response'. This is a primitive response to danger which humans have had since prehistoric times.
So, if we came upon a sabre tooth tiger all those years ago, our body would react in a whole range of ways to protect ourselves. Our hearts would race to get us away from danger, pupils would dilate to make us more observant, our bowels/bladder would loosen to get rid of any excess and our vigilance would increase to look out for further dangers.
While these reactions were useful then, they are not so useful when we are on a train and feel a similar sense of threat. Unfortunately, when we experience the fight or flight response today, we think we are going mad.
What most people do not realise is that these are natural reactions to anxiety-provoking events. Knowing this should ease some of the stress caused by these types of symptoms. When we know what we are dealing with, we can do something about it. And the good news is that there are numerous strategies we can adopt.
This week I will address specific areas relating to stress, including: turning negative thoughts into positive ones, problem-solving techniques, dealing with panic attacks and how to get a good night's sleep.
Find out how to turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts in tomorrow's Irish Independent, as part of the Mind Tools series.
Dr Mark Harrold is a clinical psychologist drmarkharrold.com