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WITH our increasingly busy lives, not to mention the current financial uncertainties we face, you might be forgiven for thinking that stress is a most modern phenomenon but, according to Ann Cox of Dublin's Stress Management Institute, it's as old as humanity itself.

"Stress reactions originate from our very primitive nervous systems which are the same as they were many thousands of years ago," she says.

"The same systems get activated, whether it's a tiger roaring at us or a difficult email coming out of the blue."

But life has changed a lot since caveman days. "The big difference is that in earlier times the major stresses were much more about life and death situations, whereas nowadays we perceive things that are not life threatening to be dangerous in the same kind of way. Our bodies speed up and want to get away from the threat. This reaction is called 'the stress response' and it's a simple physiological chain of events involving every system in the body."

There are many symptoms of stress including insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, digestive disorders, repeated colds and flu, muscular tension and headaches.

Sustained stress can lead to negative thinking, depression, concentration problems and self-destructive behaviours such as increased alcohol consumption, over-eating and reliance on over-the-counter medications.

For Sinead Deegan, who runs her own dog grooming and daycare chain in Dublin, Mutt Ugly, the reaction to the growing stress in her life is not pretty.

"I just get very rude," she says, "particularly to the people around me in my personal life. I'm able to multi-task and deal with a lot of things, but sometimes another thing comes along to add to the pile that's already there and I come tumbling down. When that happens, it's best to stay out of my way."

Stress is not only triggered by circumstances, but it's part of certain people's individual natures, according to Ann. "We need to understand the nature of getting stressed," she says. "It's psychological but more than that, it's physiological. Approximately 15 per cent of us are more prone to getting stressed than others. We're more sensitive. There are lots of other factors at play, for instance the way we've been brought up, what we've been exposed to in our lives."

Ordinarily Sinead would never have seen herself as a stress-sensitive person, but nowadays not only is she employing a staff of 20, she's a heavily pregnant mother of one toddler.

"We can't change what's happening outside us, we can only change how we deal with it," explains Ann Cox.


"One of the main things is to remember to breathe," she says. "When our nervous systems get activated, sensing there is a threat around, one of the first things we do is hold our breath. We're not even aware of it sometimes, that our breathing is very shallow and that we're holding ourselves very tightly.

"We pull into ourselves and sometimes look for comfort in the wrong places, like through eating unhealthy food or smoking. Our inclination is to do something to soothe the nervous system, but it's not soothing it in the long term. It's a short-term fix that can give us more stress in the long term."

Red wine is Sinead's short-term fix, "which isn't so good when you're pregnant", she concedes. "I say to my husband, 'Can I have another glass? And he's like, 'No!' Having said that, I've always exercised, going for runs or doing yoga. Since I haven't the energy to be as agile as I was before this pregnancy I've started swimming once a week. Even 20 minutes in a swimming pool keeps me more balanced."

While keeping yourself balanced through exercise and healthy living is good, many people who are stressed don't even know it.

"It's often actually when we're at the peak of being stressed that we don't recognise that we're actually stressed," says Ann. "I would love to say there was an instant way to cop on to the fact that you're stressed. Often it's about listening to the people around us."

The Stress Management Institute, Stoker's Hall, 16 Harcourt Street, Dublin 2, 01 478 9469, www.stressmanagement.ie