Stress has been the overwhelming reaction for me these last few weeks. It started as I just made it back into the country within hours of the borders closing - like most kiwis who have been living in Australia for years - I don’t have any official documentation confirming my permanent resident status other than my husband and children all living in and being Australians. I have now been in isolation mode for more than 4 weeks. With no access to our regular support network - daycare, kinda or the grandparents, it has been a balancing act between the kids and work. While I take pride in my ability to adapt and make the most of situations, this one is tough. I’m stressed out and it’s presenting itself as anger! Man, I’m angry!
I needed to know why so I started to look into stress and what it actually does to our bodies. Fundamentally stress is the natural response to information being received by the body as potentially dangerous or problematic. It triggers the flight or fight response which is basically how we have survived as a species.
When we detect stress our stress response system is activated. This starts in the brain, with the amygdala sending a message to the hypothalamus, whose job it is to wake up the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland sends hormones to the adrenal glands (who happen to live on top of the kidneys) who release cortisol into the body. Cortisol, aka, the stress hormone, fires up the body ready for action - it clears the head, sends energy to important muscles and increases your heart rate and breathing. The amygdala also connects with the prefrontal cortex (our emotional control centre) who is trying to control our emotional response to the situation. This is super important to help slow the production of cortisol, and to help us calm down.
While this process is incredible (it happens so quickly people react before they even know what they are reacting to!), it can be hard for some people to put the brakes on stress. If stress becomes part of your everyday life the stress response system will start to make less cortisol because there is so much in the body already. This can cause an imbalance leading to a poor functioning stress response system. This system on idle can lead to major health problems - heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and so on.
I need to calm the F down. Way easier said than done but there are a few good analogies around to help.
Stress bucket is my favourite. Imagine a bucket with a tap at the bottom. The bucket is filled with all of the stressors and demands in our life. They can be environmental (changes at work or home), interpersonal (relationships with people), intrapersonal (internal stress like anxiety). Our bucket has a limited capacity so if we leave it unchecked it’s easy for the bucket to overflow. In my case this has been expressed as angry outbursts over rather trivial things (like kids taking all the mattress off their beds... again), then the guilt that I overreacted thus adding more into my stress bucket! By understanding that it wasn’t just the event I was reacting to but the accumulation of everything in my bucket it helps to lessen the guilt and explains my over reaction.
The tap on the bottom of the bucket is our coping mechanism. This is different for each person but it's common sense - exercise, eating well, rest and relaxation, in my case it is self-care and self-compassion. By dedicating at least 30 minutes a day to any of the above we help to relieve the build up in our bucket, which helps us to deal with any new stressors and manage current ones. Finding those 30 minutes a day can be tough but they are there, and prioritizing them not only benefits how you tackle the rest of the day but also makes you a nicer person to be around!
Ask for help if you need it. I did. In Australia at the moment all mental health consultations are bulk billed and appointments are hosted on telehealth. You don’t even have to leave the house, which is a shame really because that's all I want to do!