Hong Kong is infamous for stress: We are stressed about work, stressed about city crowds, stressed about high costs, stressed about small spaces, and, ultimately, stressed about being stressed.
But actually: What is Stress?
Stress is a form of tension that arises when people perceive that the demands placed on them exceed their coping resources. This can mean different things to different people. For example, we may successfully manage work pressures with a strong belief in our ability to deliver results – thus, not become stressed. However, add other challenges to this, such as significant deadlines, financial worries, health issues or sudden life changes, and we may find our existing coping strategies running dry. As a consequence, we begin to experience stress symptoms.
What are the Symptoms of Stress?
Stress can express itself in four areas: Thoughts, feelings, physiology, and behaviours.
Stress has been linked to repetitive thought patterns, often around worries about the future. Some people experience this as thoughts circling around in their head or even spinning out of control. These thoughts can be automatic, negative, and unrealistic, and include self-doubt, self-criticism and overall pessimism. Stress can also interfere with our memory and concentration, leading to forgetfulness or difficulties in decision-making or completing tasks.
Most commonly, stressed people report depressive and low mood, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, lack of motivation, low self-confidence, irritability, or hopelessness. Some people find that they “just cannot stop crying” or have become particularly “snappy and angry at everyone”. Others feel numb, empty or detached from the people around them or the activities they used to enjoy.
Stress affects our physiology through the activation of our sympathetic nervous system: our fight-flight system. Our bodies interpret stress as a threat and trigger hormones that prepare us for defence, for example by elevating heart rate, blood pressure and lung function, decreasing digestion and releasing glucose. While this is adaptive when we need to flee from a predator, in the daily urban grind such physiological stress responses may leave us feeling all revved up with nowhere to go. People may find they are sitting at their desk with a sudden pounding heart and rapid breathing, which at best feels uncomfortable, and at worst leads to a panic attack. When stress is chronic, the continuous activation of our fight-flight response can cause dysfunction. Physical symptoms of stress include headaches, restless sleep, excessive sweating, nausea and dizziness, chest pain, indigestion, muscle tension, and back pain.
Stress also impacts our behaviours. Frequently, in Hong Kong, stress drives those couple of after-work drinks to “take the edge off” – a form of self-soothing and distraction. We may go out more and crave social connection, or quite the opposite, we may withdraw and hide away. During stressful times, we may experience more injuries and sickness, and impaired work performance, as well as intense or obsessive activity.
So how can we Reduce our Stress?
We will see the best results in reducing our stress response if we address all four components of stress.
- Organise your Thoughts Sometimes the easiest way to halt circling thoughts is writing them down. Make a to-do list, so that you do not need to keep all that information in your head and can rest assured that you will be able to address tasks later on. It is useful to prioritise these tasks in order of importance. From there, we can move onto making an action plan. Define an overarching concrete SMART goal: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and set in a timeframe; and then add little goals along the way toward this. This process not only helps to get structure, but also puts you back into control rather than letting the stress control you.
– Observe your Feelings Emotions come and go in waves. We have the tendency to immerse ourselves and risk getting lost in them. Observe your emotions: how do they feel in our body? How intense are they? What do they mean to use? What memories do they bring? This can create a space between the trigger of the emotion and our response to it – and it can also inform us about what we may need to ease the stress. For example, work stress is rarely about meeting a deadline – it is rather about what that deadline means to us. Are we worried about losing our job? Does it trigger our fears of failure? It we find that the true feeling at the heart of our stress is fear, we can look for ways to make ourselves feel more secure.
– Train your Breath The counter-part to our sympathetic ‘fight-flight’ system is our parasympathetic ‘rest-recovery’ system. This can be activated in a simple physical way – independent from whether we are able to address our stressed thoughts or feelings. This is done via breathing: Specifically, breathing in to the count of four, holding our breath for the count of four, and breathing out controlled and even to the count of eight. The key here is that the out-breath is longer than the in-breath, which helps the body to understand that there is no danger and we can relax. A great side-bonus of this exercise is that it trains our attention.
– Set your Boundaries It is easy for us to feel overwhelmed if we take on all the tasks thrown at us and squeeze 96 hours of work into 24 hour days. Adequate sleep and nutrition are important to keep our engine running, healthy and balanced. It is important to set boundaries not just with other people, but also with our own inner critic. Schedule time to engage in activities that intrinsically make you happy, calm or excited. If you struggle with this, try to remind yourself what you are living for – to run faster and faster on a hamsterwheel or to enjoy the ride?
Stress can often hijack us and make us forget the important things in life. Exploring and understanding what drives our stress is crucial to reducing it. Therapy can help to dig deeper and reveal what lies at the core of our stress experience. From there, we can implement changes together for long-lasting improvement in wellbeing. As we all come from a unique combination of experiences, this journey is also unique for everyone.