Moving house. Becoming a parent. A job that is ever more demanding yet offers little stability. The climate emergency, COVID-19 and war in Europe. The images that are conjured up when we think of the word ‘stress’ are different for each of us. But what exactly is stress? When does it become a problem? And most importantly, what can we do about it? Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Monica Hubschmid Dumauthioz gives us her perspective.
None of us particularly enjoy feeling stressed. Yet it’s worth reminding ourselves that stress is not inherently bad. In fact, stress evolved as a survival mechanism to help us react to life-threatening situations. When our ancestors came face to face with a sabre-toothed cat, their neurological sensors activated their sympathetic nervous system, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. With an increased heart rate and oxygenated muscles, they were better able to either fight or take flight.
The trouble is that everyday situations trigger this same cascade of physiological events, even when we’re not in any kind of danger. We might feel stressed when we feel powerless, when our responsibilities feel overwhelming, or when we don’t have time to do what is asked of us.
A small dose of stress can be stimulating and lead to productivity – thus helping us to achieve our goals – as long as we find time to regenerate and wind down. When we don’t, stress can become chronic and lead to mental health disorders. As many small stresses accumulate in our system, we can become so vulnerable that even a tiny trigger can lead to a major, disproportionate response. When someone is out of balance and unable to regenerate themselves, this can lead to disorders like anxiety, depression or addiction, all of which can result from chronic stress.
Many are the triggers that can provoke a stress response. A few examples in the workplace include the sheer amount of work on our plates, time pressure, having to multitask and conflicts with others. There is also the omnipresence of smartphones in our lives, blurring the distinction between work and home, as we often check our work emails first thing in the morning and right before bed.
While major events like a severe accident or living through a natural disaster would stress any of us (and may lead to PTSD), in our day-to-day lives our response to stress depends on our life experience and our resilience. Through my practice, I’ve observed that burnout is more frequent for some personality profiles, notably those who place a lot of importance on their jobs and are keen to prove themselves. Those who have had difficult childhoods – who’ve had to care for others early in life, for instance – are more prone to this, as they are less able to monitor their own well-being barometer. Keen to perform well, they will extend their hours until, in the long run, chronic stress leads to burnout.