Let’s face it – everyone gets stressed out from time to time – whether they care to admit it or not.
Research by the American Psychological Association indicates that as many as 75-80 percent of Americans self-report their stress to be at moderate to high levels. Stress can come in many forms, and sometimes we may not even notice or seem bothered by it. So what constitutes stress? The normal daily routine of work or home responsibilities can cause stress, as can experiencing a sudden major life-altering event, such as losing a job, dealing with sudden loss, or a prolonged illness.
Experiencing or witnessing a event or situation, such as war or combat, serious accident, or a natural disaster can also cause significant stress, and is perhaps the most commonly acknowledged type of stressor. People react to stressful situations in different ways, and most people generally process and react to stress automatically and recover on their own after a short time, but others may require more adjustment time, or even professional intervention.
When does stress become a problem?
Not all stress is created equal, which is to say that not all stress is “bad” stress. Increased stress levels automatically release a myriad of hormones, including adrenaline. Adrenaline is the most commonly known stress-related hormone, as it is often associated with the body’s “fight or flight” responses. Increased adrenaline causes the dilation of airways for increased oxygen flow to the muscles, and increased blood flow to the heart and lungs. It also acts to diminish the body’s ability to experience pain, while increasing a sense of awareness. These reactions can allow the body to endure life-threatening situations and can last up to an hour after the incident.
Adrenaline is responsible for allowing you to either fight your way out of a situation, even while sustaining injury, or in producing the “get off the X” response when things go wrong. That being said, prolonged exposure to stress can have adverse physical, behavioral, and emotional effects on the body, including the development of high blood pressure, heart disease, extreme weight loss or weight gain, increased risk of heart attack, depression, anxiety, and anger issues.
What does stress look like?
Just as people react to individual stressors differently, they can also react to prolonged stress differently. Commonly experienced symptoms of stress, and signs that one might be experiencing problematic stress reactions can include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following:
Physical effects of stress on the body
- Muscle tension or body aches
- Chest pain
- Chronically upset stomach
- Prolonged sleep problems or insomnia
Emotional effects of stress
- Restlessness or jittery feelings
- Lack of motivation or satisfaction
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty focusing or hyper focusing
- Irritability or anger
- Sadness or depression
Behavioral effects of stress
• Change in appetite (eating more or eating less)
• Angry outbursts / increased arguments and confrontation
• Increased substance use (including drugs, alcohol, or tobacco use)
• Social withdrawal and isolation
• Exercising less often
Can you counter the effects of stress?
The short answer is, yes. The concept of self-care is taught in every college-level helping profession program in the country, and should be a part of everyone’s daily lifestyle, especially for those working within the helping profession, which includes all members of the first responder community or high threat CP, because of the constant high level of stress encountered on a consistent basis due to having to always be “switched on” when working. It is also often difficult for these same people to “switch off” when off duty, which can lead to chronic stress conditions.
Self-care simply refers to the act of remembering to take time to look after your own physical health and mental health needs. So often we encounter those who see it as a sign of personal weakness, but the reality is that stress and its effects on the mind and body are all too real, and ignoring it can have equally real consequences, including increased susceptibility to illness. To put it another way, you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. It is imperative to take time to unwind and relax. The ways to accomplish this can be as diverse and unique as the individual themselves, but the basic building blocks should include getting regular exercise, maintaining proper diet and nutrition, and – possibly the most difficult for those in these professions – getting adequate sleep.
Other possibilities include spending time with family, yoga, meditation, taking time away from work for personal vacation, and engaging in hobbies unrelated to your professional work. It’s also worth mentioning that occasionally one may encounter situations that require professional intervention such as therapy, to help address the effects of experienced stress, as is often the case for those who meet diagnostic criteria for acute stress or post-traumatic stress disorder. Remember we are no good to anyone in a Protection capacity if we can’t function.
Stress and Self Care
By: Jason Poston
Jason Poston is a trained Executive Protection Agent and a licensed clinical social worker and certified substance abuse counselor.