We all get stressed sometimes. This is perfectly normal. Although we tend to think of stress as a bad thing, stress can sometimes be very positive and motivating, spurring us to overcome hurdles and achieve our goals.

Problems arise, though, when our stress feels overwhelming or goes on for too long, affecting relationships, work and home life. Your mood and behaviour might change, and you might notice physical clues within yourself that all is not well. Although stress itself isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, it can have a harmful effect on our emotional and physical well-being. It can even lead to serious illness.

When we are stressed, the hypothalamus part of our brain tells our body to make more “stress hormones,” such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones give us an extra boost of energy so that we can deal better with any threats or pressure (also called our fight or flight response). Adrenaline, for example, increases our heart rate, raises our blood pressure and provides energy, and cortisol increases our energy by releasing glucose into our bloodstream so that we can run away. Our body usually controls our physical response to stress all by itself, so that when the stressful event is over, our hormone levels naturally fall. Problems occur, though, when our stress is too intense or goes on too long, because our bodies are forced to release stress hormones over a long period.

Mindfulness is a mental training technique that teaches us to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, moods and bodily sensations as they are in the present moment so that we can see things as they are, and not as we wish them to be. When we pay attention to how we are thinking and feeling right now, we become better at spotting the build up of stress – and uncomfortable emotions and thoughts – so that we can deal with them more effectively, instead of just reacting in ways that might not be good for us. We learn that thoughts are just thoughts.

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