Don’t mess with stress

Stress can be very useful – it helps us respond to threats. But once the threat passes, our bodies are built to calm down. Ongoing stress can cause brain changes that reduce emotional resilience and can lead to anxiety and depression. In today’s busy world, it can be common to accept or normalise ongoing stress. But it’s very important that we prioritise ‘rest and digest’ – the natural resting state our bodies return to after stress. Let’s arm you with knowledge and strategies that can help.

Don’t mess with stress

Stress can be very useful – it helps us respond to threats. But once the threat passes, our bodies are built to calm down. Ongoing stress can cause brain changes that reduce emotional resilience and can lead to anxiety and depression. In today’s busy world, it can be common to accept or normalise ongoing stress. But it’s very important that we prioritise ‘rest and digest’ – the natural resting state our bodies return to after stress. Let’s arm you with knowledge and strategies that can help.

What are stress and anxiety?

What is stress?

Our brains are programmed to respond to threats by activating our stress response, also called ‘flight, freeze or fight’ mode. Once the threat passes, the brain and body return to ‘rest and digest’ mode designed to be our natural resting state. If a stressful event is short-lived, the way the body responds under stress helps us to respond and cope. For instance, it can make you focus more sharply or perform better physically to flee from a threat. Put another way, stress is helpful and adaptive in the short term.

What happens when stress is ongoing?
When we feel stressed for extended periods, we might experience ‘allostatic overload’. This is when the challenges in our environment exceed our body’s ability to adapt and respond in a helpful way. Allostatic overload can lead to:

  • Decline in psychological wellbeing
  • Memory issues
  • Suppressed immune function
  • Fatigue

Severe stress is one of the most robust risk factors for developing mental disorders, including anxiety disorders. Chronic stress remodels the brain in a way that makes us less able to regulate emotions and more vulnerable to perceiving threats around us.

How do I know if I’m stressed?

Signs and symptoms of stress 

Feelings: Anger, numbness, irritability, helplessness, reduced enjoyment of activities

Physical: Sleep disturbance, headache, fatigue, muscle tension, appetite changes, digestive issues

Behaviour: Relationship conflicts, disconnected, alienated, withdrawal, declines in performance at work/study/school

Thinking: Difficulty concentrating , indecisive, worried, low self-esteem, low confidence

What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a universal human experience particularly associated with uncertainty. For example, it is normal to experience anxiety if starting a new job or public speaking. Fear and anxiety are processed similarly in the brain but are quite different.

  • Fear is a specific response to a recognised danger
  • Anxiety is a generalised response to an unknown threat

They can both ignite our ‘fight, freeze, or flight’ system. They can cause the same physical responses, such as a racing heart, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, and stomach ache. In cases of sudden fear, once a stressor passes the brain and body return to ‘rest and digest’ mode. In cases of anxiety, the body can experience a prolonged stress reaction. Anxiety may become problematic when:

  • The anxious reaction is bigger than circumstances warrant
  • It lasts longer than necessary
  • Anxiety levels impair quality of life
  • Anxious feelings impact day to day functioning
How do I know if I’m experiencing anxiety?

Whilst anxiety disorders need to be diagnosed by a qualified health professional, here are some of the possible signs, if they are popping up over a longer period of time:

Behaviours:

  • Avoiding usual activities
  • Seeking reassurance from others
  • Increased use of substances

Thoughts:

  • Can’t stop worrying
  • Mind racing or going blank
  • A drop in memory and concentration
  • Indecision or self-doubt

Feelings:

  • Stressed, tense
  • Overwhelmed
  • Experiencing dread or an urge to flee
  • Irritable, quick to anger, or impatient

Physical signs:

  • Dry mouth, sweating
  • Tense muscles or headaches
  • Rapid, shallow breaths
  • Chest pain, racing heart
  • Upset stomach

How can I manage stress and anxiety?

Be compassionate with yourself.

Consult a qualified professional. Your GP is a good place to start.

Try the below strategies.

Exercise
A huge body of research shows that exercise is great for reducing stress. General guidelines:

  • Type: Mix of cardio (eg walking), stretching, and resistance exercise
  • Frequency: Minimum 3-5 days per week.
  • Duration: work up to a minimum of 30mins per session
  • Intensity: able to speak whole sentences but not sing

Please consult a health care professional if you are over 40, have a chronic health condition, or haven’t exercised in a long time.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is attention training for your brain. You can do it anytime, anywhere. Neuroscience shows it produces significant and measurable positive changes in the brain.

Below is a recorded mindfulness exercise you can use to get started.

Cognitive strategies

When we’re stressed or overwhelmed, it can be helpful to remember that our thoughts are not facts. Our brains often don’t tell us the whole story when we’re thinking about a stressful situation. One reason is our brains have efficient ways of processing information called heuristics or mental shortcuts. This is useful for everyday functioning and survival but not always for worry or anxiety.

Common unhelpful thinking styles to recognise:

  • Catastrophising
  • Mental filter (focusing on negative, ignoring positive)
  • Black and white thinking
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Personalisation (mind-reading and assuming things are to do with us)
  • Shoulding and Musting (having unrealistic expectations that we ‘should’ or ‘must’ do or be something)
  • Magnification/minimisation (exaggerating the bad and dismissing the positive)
  • Emotional reasoning (treating feelings as evidence of reality)
  • Labelling (rigid, global statements about self or others)

Recognising when you are using one or more of these thinking styles can help. Remind yourself that thoughts aren’t always facts, with self-compassion.

Sleep

When you get good quality sleep your body reduces its levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. When you’re feeling stressed, sleep quality can be impacted, which can become a ‘stress-sleep’ cycle. Employing the above strategies can assist you to get a good night’s sleep.

Sleep hygiene also helps:

  • Consistent wake-up time
  • Avoid electronic devices before bedtime
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime
  • Create a quiet, dark, cool, relaxing sleep environment

Further on this page is a webinar on what quality sleep looks like and the neuroscience behind its links to brain and mental health.

Other healthy coping strategies
  • Make small, continuous, committed investments into your wellbeing. They do add up!
  • Practice deep slow breathing – at a rate of approximately 10 breaths per minute
  • Stay socially connected and talk with trusted friends and family. Check out our webinar on this page.
  • Moderate caffeine and alcohol intake
  • Good nutrition – a Mediterranean style diet has strong links to mental wellbeing

If stress gets in the way of living your life, seek professional help. Your GP is a good starting point.

Professional support

Many of us go through tough times. Approximately 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental disorder in any given year. If stress gets in the way of living your life, seek professional help. Making an appointment with your GP is a good place to start. GPs can create a Mental Health Care Plan and refer you to a psychologist. You could also contact your Employee Assistance Program.

Helplines offering great support:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
  • Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467
  • 1800RESPECT 1800 737 732
  • MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
  • Qlife 1800 184 527
  • 13YARN 13 92 76

Community stories

“For me, the tell-tale signs of too much stress are when I have difficulty with sleep, I get easily irritated…and I also have a feeling of overwhelm and dis-organisation. I start missing important things like going to the gym or not taking lunch breaks. I notice I start getting thoughts of guilt or the feeling I’m letting people down. To support myself to get back on track, I ensure I put time aside to do some form of meditation and I talk to those who are there to support me. I let them know things have felt overwhelming lately and tell them about my plan to get back on top, so they can then assist to hold me to account and stick to my plan. I try as much as practically possible to stick to a routine – one that is the same as when things aren’t as stressful. Where possible, I get out in the fresh air either by going for a walk or to the beach.”

James Hill Industry professional and lived experience mental health advocate

“I know when I am becoming overly stressed when I start to feel anxious. It’s almost as if my nervous system feels like it’s on high alert and it’s hard to turn it off. The way I deal with stress these days is to pay attention to the feelings I have and then to purposely take time out to sit and be still.   I also try to sit outside in nature and pay attention to 5 things I can see, 4 things I can touch, 3 things I can hear, 2 things I can smell, 1 thing I can taste. This allows my system to slow down and get my breathing back under control and relax myself back to a peaceful state. Journaling also helps me to stay in the moment.”

Kerrie Atherton Counsellor and mental health advocate

“I know I’m too stressed when I seem to have an endless amount of tasks and the anxiety impacts my sleep. To lower my stress levels, it helps to only prioritise a few tasks each day and engage in an enjoyable activity to change my mindset, like hanging out with my friends.”

Alyssa Jemmet UniSC student

Video and audio resources

Understanding the Neuroscience of Stress and Anxiety

Enhance your wellbeing and learn strategies to lower stress and anxiety in this expert presentation. Drawing on cutting edge neuroscience, this presentation explains how stress and anxiety interacts with the brain. You’ll also discover how evidence-based lifestyle tips and cognitive strategies can lower stress and anxiety, leading to greater calm and wellbeing.

Understanding the neuroscience of stress and anxiety

Webinar: Drawing on cutting edge neuroscience, this presentation explains how stress and anxiety interacts with the brain.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness exercise to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety

Sleep

Webinar: The neuroscience behind why good quality sleep is important for your brain and mental health

Social connection

Webinar: The neuroscience behind social connection and why it matters for your brain and mental wellbeing

YOUR GUIDE
Learn how stress and anxiety interact with your brain and gives evidence-based strategies to manage that.

FOR YOUR WORKPLACE
Don’t mess with stress poster

FOR YOUR WORKPLACE
Two-page resource to display for staff or clients