Managing stress
Whakataunga ahotea

Master good habits to reduce stress and anxiety for a better sense of peace and mental clarity.

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s natural response to emotional, mental, or physical pressure. The pressure or trigger for the response can be anything like public speaking, sitting a test, or dealing with work pressures. A stress response can start following a large event like a car accident, or by a build-up of smaller events over time (like losing your keys, then your wallet, then your car). This page focusses on everyday stress. The stress response from a traumatic event often requires additional ways to support yourself. For information on that, have a look at our resource on dealing with critical incident stress and trauma.
The stress response is a set of physiological changes that occur in your body when the brain perceives that there is some sort of threat or danger, or that your coping skills are being stretched. When this happens your brain tells your body to switch on this stress response, which some people also call the “flight or fight” response. The flight or fight response is the body’s way of trying to ensure you survive when it thinks you’re in danger.

Image source: Nature neuroscience.

The stress response is designed to protect you, and it is useful - up to a point - when we need a physical response, or when we need to focus.

The problems occur when stress becomes ongoing and triggers a continued activation of our nervous system over time. This continued triggering of physiological responses in the body, such as the release of cortisone, hormones, muscles tension and changes to the blood flow to the brain and other organs to help us perform, but can lead to a range of not so good impacts on our physical health, emotions, ways of thinking, and how we behave if it persists for too long.

The stressed brain also has other negative features, while good in some instances, they can create problems in others. For example, the ability to focus, can result in over-focusing on one thing to the exclusion of other important things. In addition, the stress response can gear our brain towards scanning for threat (this can feel like heightened alertness), but cause us to miss the positive opportunities or good things in our environment, leading to a more pessimistic outlook.

Despite these potential pitfalls, we need to recognise that stress is normal and natural. The bad reputation that stress has gained, comes in part from the wider societal culture which tries to sell us the idea that we should be happy and successful all the time. It turns out that stress is only bad for your health if you think it is. 

Researcher Dr Kelly McGongal  has found that people with higher levels of stress will die (on average) sooner that people with lower levels of stress but, only if they believed that stress was bad for them. In a large study conducted in America, researchers found that people who had higher levels of stress, but didn’t view stress as harmful had no negative effects on their life expectancy. Dr McGonigal's research suggests that how we think about stress is important and can affect everything from the health of your heart to your general happiness.


How to make stress your friend | Kelly McDonigal

With that in mind, when we talk about stress we need to move away from the idea that we need ‘stress-free lives’. For starters that is pretty much impossible. I can’t even think of a realistic scenario where life is stress free. If we have people in our lives—children, partners, mothers, fathers, drunken uncles, grumpy aunts, aging parents, bosses, colleagues—then we are likely to have relationship challenges that cause stress. So if we can’t get rid of stress, then we need to get good at stress. We need to get to understood it so it doesn’t wear us down, but helps us grow and thrive.

Understanding Stress

Being in a ‘state of stress’ uses a great deal of energy. Over time we’ll start to feel the effects of the stress response as we come off the ‘high’ that helped us respond initially to whatever challenge triggered it. This is the rebound to the extra efforts that have been made during the ‘crisis’. The same effects can occur if the trigger is not dramatic, but a series of smaller problems that go on for a long time. If it is not possible to unwind and relax and recharge between the things triggering our stress response, we may start to feel like we are not coping entirely well with what life is sending our way.

What are some indications of the downside of stress?

Stress can manifest in our bodies and minds in different ways. You may relate to some of the things on the list below. It is a long list, and to be fair some of this can be indications of stress, but they can also be indications of other things like an undiagnosed health issue, or psychological disorder like anxiety. The key to looking through the list below is to start to get in touch with what your body is up to. Where are your aches and pains? How well have you slept each night over the last few weeks, do you notice anything different? Having good self-awareness of not only your thoughts and feelings, but also how your body feels in an important part of making a move towards positive change. 

There are many effective methods to start getting great at dealing with stress, but first it is worth noting that making changes when you have been living in a state of overwhelm for some time can be hard. If stress has been ongoing, a pattern of stress may form. As a result, stress reactions may cause other problems and these problems cause more stress. For example, if challenges at work are leaving you lying awake thinking for too long, then this starts to affect your sleep. If your sleep is bad you end up tired and make mistakes. These mistakes then cause more stress, which further reduces the quality of your sleep. You can get worried about your lack of sleep and you can worry about your performance. It becomes a cycle. This has been called the stress cycle - when stress becomes an ongoing part of your life. If you allow yourself to develop habits that reinforce your stress-related issues this can be difficult to change by yourself - especially if you are tired and low on energy.

Getting over stress means breaking the stress cycle. To do this we first need to get a sense of are you ready to make a change. There are three questions you can ask yourself before you make any changes:

Three questions before making changes

Useful resources

Once you have done some good reflecting on where you are in and what is going on for you, and whether you are ready for something different, then you need to take some action! Make a plan for how you will make small changes in your life for the better.

There are a range of tools and strategies you can use to reduce and manage the level of stress in your life. These include making practical changes in your life to reduce stress, tips to manage periods when you feel stressed, and changing the way you think about stress. 

Read more about managing workload, trauma and anxiety.

Take the resilience check.

Find additional support.