Stress: what it is and how to deal with it

Written by CMI Insights Tuesday 06 April 2021
A deep dive into everything you need to know about understanding and coping with stress
Person with head in their hands surrounded by blurred people walking

There are many day-to-day situations that can make you feel stressed. At work, tasks may pile up; preparing for a presentation may seem as if it's taking forever; you may be feeling harassed or bullied; or having problems with other people. At home, you may have fallen out with partners, brothers or sisters, friends or children.

April is Stress Awareness Month, so we thought it would be useful to share some of the most useful CMI resources to help you out.

Here’s everything you need to know to identify, understand, and manage stress.


1. Understanding stress in beginner’s terms

Stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of demand. It can be caused by both good and bad experiences. When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing hormones into the blood. These chemicals give the body more energy and strength, which can be a good thing, if their stress is caused by physical danger. Beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and ultimately, quality of life.

“Think of stress like a set of scales: on one side are real or imagined pressures and on the other is how we cope with those pressures. If those scales tip because the pressure is more than we can cope with, then we become overwhelmed in the longer term,” says Dr Lynda Shaw, a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist. She explains the two biological pathways that mediate our stress response:

  • The Sympathetic-Adrena-medullar (SAM) axis is the first pathway to respond and is very quick. The sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline and noradrenalin. This causes stress symptoms such as our heart rate increasing, blood pressure going up and getting a boost of energy and, consequently, our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. This is tolerable in the short term and we recover once the perceived threat has passed.
  • The second biological reaction to stress involves the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, which is slower to respond and is triggered by signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. We need the right amount of cortisol to survive and it enhances our brain’s use of glucose as fuel or energy, and also helps us repair tissue – but cortisol can become toxic if allowed to continue for long. Persistent overreaction of these stress systems can be detrimental to our health.

“We need the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) to take over from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to feel calm, but still alert enough to function well. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over to calm everything down and our blood pressure, respiratory and heart rates slow,” Lynda explains.

Want to learn more about stress and how to manage it?


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