Written by Amy Brown, psychologist working in cardiology

Stress is such an accepted part of our society and every day conversations that it can feel strange to take a step back and wonder, what is stress and where does it come from?

Stress occurs when the perceived demand exceeds our perceived ability to cope. This triggers our body’s anxiety system. A low level of stress hormones can be helpful to keep us alert, and a high level can be helpful to make us safe again when we are in short-term immediate danger from a physical threat. Sadly, our body is not able to react differently to long term stress, or when the threat is something like our workload. A continually alert and activated state can prove unhelpful when we know there is likely to be no change to our stressful circumstances for some time.

Stress can prevent us from sleeping, eating well, getting regular exercise and meaningfully connecting with others. As health professionals we can know how important things these are for human wellbeing and recommend them to others. However, we can often feel that these things are unachievable for ourselves due to stressful work situations and may notice how our bodies and minds don’t feel up to it. Stress can perpetuate in this way as without the biofeedback of sufficient nutrients, rest, enjoyable activity and connection with others, a vicious cycle occurs. Our minds and bodies are not getting what they need, leading to us feeling worse and feeling less able to prioritise our wellbeing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a very real example of this for so many healthcare staff. The demand on NHS services has been such a great challenge, alongside the virus being a very real physical threat, that it has understandably exceeded perceived ability to cope at times. The uncertainty and lack of perceived control in such situations can also increase how stressful they are.

To reduce stress we can balance the demands on ourselves with our ability to cope. It may be that there are demands on us that we are not in control of, but we may notice that we are expecting ourselves to go above and beyond, or demanding more of ourselves than is absolutely necessary each day. Meanwhile, protecting time for relaxing and enjoyable activities, exercise and meaningful connection with others will reduce levels of stress hormones and increase our ability to cope. This means that when life gets stressful and demands increase, the more important it is to hold on to the things that are important to us and our wellbeing.