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Neil Shah

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Neil Shah is the founder and Director of The Stress Management Society and a leading international expert on stress management and wellbeing. He has qualified as a practitioner in ...

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Who are you?

Hi, I'm Neil Shar, chief de-stressing officer at the Stress Management Society and Chief Insights Officer at International Wellbeing Insights, and I'm here to answer your questions about stress.

What is stress?

So that's the million dollar question. What is stress? Now, a lot of people when you ask them what is stress, they can very easily relate to the feelings or the emotions of stress. I feel stressed, I feel panicky, anxious, overwhelmed. I can't think clearly. I feel upset, emotional, angry. Now, even though we tend to relate to the feelings or emotions of stress in and of itself, stress isn't a feeling or emotion at all. It's actually a physical response. It's the body survival mechanism given to us by nature for a very good reason. If we imagine one of our common ancestors, her name's caveman, Joanna and Joanna's strolling through the jungle on the plains of East Africa, on her way back to the cave to watch cave European women's football championship on the cave television with her cave family, Anna Sabre, tooth tiger Pounces out in front of her. She's got one or two choices to deal with that situation. Either number one, turn and leg it as quickly as she can to escape from danger or dive on the tiger's back and do her best to overpower it. Now, nature in its infinite wisdom when we surfaced on this planet, equipped us with the response to be able to navigate that to the best of our ability when we get stressed. There a series of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that trigger a chain reaction of physiological changes that best equip you to fight hard or run fast, which is why it's known as the fight of flight response. So stress in and of itself is a physiological response, not an emotion or a feeling. The feelings or emotions are byproducts of what stress actually is. We feel panicky, anxious, and overwhelm because the blood is being drained from our brain to be sent to the arms, legs, hands and feet, to best equip us to punch Q, block and defend. That's why we can't think clearly. That's why we think we start to feel panicky, anxious, and overwhelmed when we're stressed. So in answer to your question, what is stress? It's a perfectly appropriate response that was given to us to allow us to survive and overcome the threats and challenges that we first face when we surface on this planet. But in modern life, many of us are getting stressed in situations where there is nothing to fight and nothing to run away from. You're sat at your desk at work and as much as you might want to smash your computer to bits punch your boss in the face and run out of the office, it's probably not the most appropriate response. And when it has no outlet, it starts to compound and compound, and you then get to the point where it will burn you out. You'll feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and it'll really start to prevent you from being able to enjoy a full and fruitful life because you're literally overwhelmed by this state that was only ever designed to be a short-term intervention.

What do people experience when they are stressed?

So the experience of stress differs from people to people. Now, the reality is there will be one thing that we'll recognise within ourself that's an indicator that we're not in a really good place. So stress actually starts with the heart pounding, the breathing becoming shallow and fast. The muscles tensing up, the bladder relaxing. I need to go to the toilet. You start sweating. Even though the temperature in the environment hasn't changed, you're starting to feel a lot warmer. You might find your teeth are gritted, blood pressure's risen, blood sugar's risen. That's when stress is first triggered. But you stay in that state for long enough. After a while, you're going to start to feel exhausted. You'll feel overwhelmed. You'll feel irritable and snappy. You might disengage and withdraw. You might become more animated and aggressive. You might find that your energy slumps, and at that point you start craving that cup of coffee, the chocolate bar, alcoholic beverage, a cigarette or something else to give you a bit of a boost to pick you up. You might stop eating. So people tend to have weight gain, weight loss, not sleeping at night, stopping, doing the things that you know are going to bring you health and vitality, like exercising, socialising, spending time with the people that you care about, that you might find that it takes longer to get things done so you're spending longer hours at work, but actually getting less done. So it's really important if we want to better equip ourselves to cope with stress, that we start to recognise some of those early symptoms so we can take action to do something about it long before it becomes a more serious issue.

Can stress lead to other medical problems?

How does stress affect our body?