Living in a fast paced society that honours excellence and prides in productivity, we get so accustomed and hard-wired to working long hours. Our body cleverly learns and adapted with the mental rigours to meet the daily demands from work and family. Subtly, we allow stress to rob away our joy without us noticing!
Somehow, we all have an idea what stress is. The thing is that sometimes our understanding of stress is too narrowly defined. Often too quickly, we associate stress as an emotional state. Stress is more than a feeling; there is more than meet the eye. Many times, if we are so conditioned to living in a stressful environment, chances are we won't even notice when our body feels overwhelmed. We can get so 'immune' to stress, meaning our body have gotten used to the tense feeling being in stress, that it forgotten what it felt to be in the state when it was unwound, of how it felt to be relaxed and at peace. To do nothing (which also includes being entirely screen-free ~ like not scrolling through social media or playing mobile game) can be very foreign and unfamiliar feeling.
I hope this short article helps bring awareness to what this seemingly 'little' stress can do to even rob away our joy in life.
So, what exactly is stress?
Stress has been characterized as a physiological demand placed on the body when one must adapt, cope or adjust with situations (Turner, 2012). To better understand stress, we need to see this from our body's point of view. Dr. William Shiel (2018) explains this more clearly from a medical or biological context. Stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be induced from external (i.e. environment, or social situation) or internal (i.e. illness, or from a medical procedure).
Stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.
I don't think this is a new insight. Issue arises when we lack awareness of how our body is coping with this bodily or mental tension. To our body, STRESS is equivalent to CHANGE (IMH Singapore, 2019). This means technically anything that causes a change in your life causes stress. These changes can be big and dramatic events like losing a job, landing into a financial crisis, losing a loved one, falling critically ill, meeting into an accident, etc. These changes can also be the smaller events such as facing a demanding situation at work, hard-pressed to meet an impossible dateline, or having to deal with a difficult relationship issues such as break-up, unresolved conflict with boss or spouse, coping with parenting roles, etc. So logically, when our body experience these changes, it goes through stress. And our body learns to make a response to handle stress, the thing is not every response is helpful or healthy.
Unhealthy Responses to Stress
Here's a short list of Unhealthy Responses to Stress (Harvard Health Publishing).
Quick check - the last time you met with a stressful situation you cannot handle, do you observe yourself responding in any of items from the list below?
Watching endless hours of TV (or Youtube, Netflix)
Withdrawing from friends or partners or,
Conversely jumping into a frenzied social life to avoid facing problems
Overeating or weight gain
Undereating or weight loss
Sleeping too much
Drinking too much alcohol
Lashing out at others in emotionally or physically violent outbursts
Taking up smoking or smoking more than usual
Taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs that promise some form or relief, such as sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, or anti-anxiety pills
Taking illegal or unsafe drugs
Some people picked up binge eating, others spend long hours on youtube, Netflix or mobile gamings to 'destress'. These are ways people take to 'take a break' from stressful situation. Yet this approach merely provides offers a temporal escape from the reality.
For those who find themselves easily agitated, with tendencies to lash out their anger towards their family might have been going through chronic stress, hence always feel highly strung due to pressures.
For others who chose to keep quiet and bottle up their unpleasant emotions (i.e. frustrations, sadness) tends to be socially isolated from others. This can make them more susceptible to falling into depression - finding no joy in whatever they do. At the extreme, one could possible lose meaning of living, and could no longer bring themselves forward to go to work or school. This is a state of complete shutdown.
Crossing the line to the point of Burnout
Stress can be a good thing, particularly when kept within the optimal level. Too little stress means, we get bored. Coming out of our comfort zone, we enter into the learning zone where we feel accomplished when we overcome a challenge set within our limits. The problem arise when we crossed the line and enter into the distress zone without even realising. When our body start telling us we feel tired, needing rest and we fail to listen, we persist keep pushing ourselves to work harder to complete the task; our body takes the damage. Because of our fatigue, we can feel easily agitated and more emotionally reactive. This is where we start seeing how stress cause us to slowly lose the joy we once had at work; and eventually losing interest in everything. Even so, some still do not see that they are already in the distress zone. Our body sends us signal, but are we listening to what our body tells us?
Source: Harvard Business Review
Our body sends signal to us, but are we listening to what our body tells us?
The truth is that our body has been intelligently designed to protect us, particularly in situations when we face any kind of demand or threat. Hence, when our body sense danger or threat —whether real or imagined, the body's defence mechanism kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response.” This happens when our body picked up that we are in distress, and there are tell-tale signs.
Here are some indicators that may suggest we have crossed over to the distress zone:
Physical: Aches & pains, Headaches, Fatigue, Lethargy, Stomach upsets, etc
Emotional: Worry, Tensed, Irritable, Depressed, overwhelmed, Restless, etc
Cognitive: Forgetfulness, Poor concentration, difficulty in making decisions, etc
Behaviour: Sleep problems, Poor appetite, Falling ill, Smoking/Drinking excessively
Source: Institute of Mental Health Singapore
For those who are struggling to cope with stress and with some of these tell-tale signs above runs a high risk of experiencing a burnout, which is state that leave us feeling exhausted, empty and no longer able to cope with the demands of life (Scott, 2019).
Burnout is a state that leave us feeling exhausted, empty and no longer able to cope with the demands of life.
Making a New Decision
For those who are feeling burnout, its time to slow down and allow our body to rest. Self-care strategies can help to provide a temporal recharge to combat the next wave of stressful events. Caring for our own needs is essential. If we cannot help ourselves, how do we then help others. Always remember Self-care is not Selfish.
But beyond planning the next getaway, spending long hours in silent mediation or expensive spa treatment to unwind, a better alternative can be to learn how to work through these issues by growing in insights, wisdom and skills tackle the root cause for our stress. This demands us to confront what is stumbling us, which can mean learning new ways to work or study more efficiently, be a better time manage and procrastinate less; learning to assert ourselves in front of our boss, colleague and even family members, learning to say no and have healthy boundaries at work and at home, and more.
It is necessary to recognise that certain issues are more complex than others. I mean the huge conflicts with your spouse, the breakup, the failed business, the demanding boss, the bullying and ostracising in the workplace or even in school. Sometimes, we need all need a little hand to navigate through these issues. Having someone to talk to can be helpful but may not always work. A trained counsellor can help you navigate through these complexities, guiding you toward gaining insights on how you can truly cope better with the stress, especially if the ones that has already robbed your joy away!
If you are experiencing a burnout or finding much difficulty to regain the joy you have lost to stress, make time and connect with one of our counsellors here at Grace Oasis, it'll help!
Dr. Shiel William C. (2018, Nov 12), 'Definition of Stress', Medicine Net. Retrieved from https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=20104
Figliolino J. (2017, Mar 20),'The Science of Stress Management: Your Brain on Cortisol'. Retrieved from http://blog.idonethis.com/science-stress-management-brain-cortisol/
Gino Francesa, (2016, Apr 14), 'Are you too stressed to be productive? Or not stressed enough', Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/04/are-you-too-stressed-to-be-productive-or-not-stressed-enough
Harvard Health Publishing (n.d.), 'Watch out for unhealthy responses to stress', Healthbeat. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/watch-out-for-unhealthy-responses-to-stress
Institute of Mental Health Singapore (n.d.), 'Understanding your Mental Health: Overcoming Stress', Retrieved from https://www.imh.com.sg/wellness/page.aspx?id=558
Scott Elizabeth. (2019, Aug 27), 'How to tell you have Reached the point of Burnout', Very Well Mind. Retrieved from
Turner E. A. (2012, Dec 11), '4 Health ways to cope with stress', Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-race-good-health/201212/4-healthy-ways-cope-stress
Roland Koh is a family life educator, marriage coach and the principal counsellor of Grace Oasis Counselling Services. He was a former Outward Bound Instructor and Training Consultant. He loves the great outdoors and enjoys music. Echoing this famous quote by late Dr Kurt Hahn, "There is more in you than you think, if we are made see, perhaps for the rest of our lives we are unwilling to settle for less.", Roland values growth and believes in embracing change as one thing in life that should remain constant.