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  • Writer's pictureDr Heather Dyson

Unmasking Stress: A Deeper Look for Stress Awareness Week

In the fast-paced, ever-evolving landscape of the modern world, stress has become a ubiquitous companion in our lives. From the demands of work and personal relationships to the constant barrage of information and the unforeseeable challenges we face, stress, in its various forms, exerts an undeniable influence on our mental and emotional well-being. It is precisely in the recognition of the multi-faceted nature of stress and its far-reaching effects that Stress Awareness Week takes on a profound significance.

This blog is dedicated to shedding light on stress awareness from a distinct vantage point - a trauma-informed perspective. While conventional stress management often leans towards self-care strategies, this exploration delves deeper into the intricate interplay between trauma and stress. Stress Awareness Week offers us the ideal occasion to shift the lens, focusing on a trauma-informed approach that not only empowers individuals to navigate the turbulent waters of stress but also acknowledges the profound impact of trauma on our stress response systems.

The Intersection of Stress and Trauma To understand the essence of stress awareness through a trauma-informed lens, it is important to first establish the profound interconnection between trauma and stress. Trauma, by definition, encompasses any event or series of events that overwhelms an individual's ability to cope, leaving indelible imprints on the psyche. These experiences can range from physical or emotional abuse to accidents, natural disasters, or even witnessing violence. Therefore, we must first understand that trauma can profoundly affect the brain and the body, altering how we perceive and react to stressors.

When an individual experiences trauma, it can induce lasting changes in their stress response system. These changes may manifest as heightened reactivity to stressors, increased anxiety, and an impaired ability to regulate emotions. This connection is a linchpin in understanding stress awareness. It underscores that not all stress is created equal, and that a trauma-informed perspective embraces the distinctive challenges faced by those who have traversed the dark alleys of trauma, validating their experiences and extending a hand

of support.

The Stress Epidemic: In today's high-pressure society, stress has become an epidemic. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly three-quarters of Americans experience stress-related physical and psychological symptoms regularly. This staggering statistic illustrates the urgent need to address and raise awareness about stress.

Stress is not inherently negative. In fact, it is a natural response to challenging situations and a crucial part of our survival mechanism, often referred to as the "fight or flight" response. When faced with a threat or challenge, our bodies release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare us to either confront or escape the situation. This acute stress response can be life-saving in dangerous situations.

However, chronic stress, or excessive and prolonged activation of the stress response, is where the problems arise. It can have serious consequences for both our mental and physical health.

Recognising the Different Faces of Stress

Before we embark on the journey of stress awareness from a trauma-informed standpoint, we must recognize that stress is not monolithic; it wears various masks and manifests in differing intensities. In the context of trauma-informed stress awareness, it's vital to recognise and validate the diverse ways stress can manifest, as well as the impact it has on individuals. Some common forms of stress include:

Acute Stress: This is the body's natural response to a sudden and intense threat or challenge. It can trigger the "fight or flight" response, leading to heightened awareness and readiness to react. Chronic Stress: Chronic stress results from ongoing, persistent stressors such as work pressure, financial difficulties, or long-term caregiving responsibilities. This form of stress can have severe physical and emotional consequences. Secondary Traumatic Stress: Individuals who work in helping professions, such as healthcare, emergency response, or social work, may experience secondary traumatic stress. It occurs when they absorb the trauma and stress experienced by those they help. Complex Trauma: Complex trauma is the result of repeated and prolonged exposure to traumatic events, often in interpersonal relationships. It can affect an individual's sense of self, relationships, and overall well-being. Disenfranchised Stress: This term refers to the unique stressors faced by marginalised and oppressed groups, such as racial or sexual minorities. The stress arising from discrimination and systemic oppression can be a significant source of trauma.

Understanding these various forms of stress allows us to empathise with individuals who may be dealing with different aspects of stress that require unique strategies for coping and healing.

The Psychological Impact:

Anxiety and Depression: Chronic stress can trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression. The constant release of stress hormones can disrupt the balance of chemicals in the brain, leading to mood disorders. Cognitive Impairment: Stress can impair our cognitive functions, making it difficult to concentrate, make decisions, and think clearly. This can affect our work, relationships, and overall quality of life. Burnout: Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to burnout, a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. Burnout can be a debilitating condition, making it challenging to find enjoyment in activities that were once pleasurable. The Physiological Impact:

Stress doesn't just affect our mental state; it also has profound physiological consequences. From a trauma-informed perspective, we can begin to acknowledge how stress can exacerbate trauma-related symptoms and physical health issues. Issues such as:

Hyperarousal: Stress can lead to a state of hyperarousal, where the body remains in a heightened state of alertness. For those with a history of trauma, this can trigger traumatic memories and exacerbate anxiety and hypervigilance. Immune System Suppression: Chronic stress weakens the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses and infections. This can be especially problematic for trauma survivors who may already be dealing with physical health issues. Gastrointestinal Problems: Stress can lead to gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and exacerbate pre-existing digestive problems. Trauma survivors may be at a higher risk of these issues due to the gut-brain connection. Cardiovascular Impact: Prolonged stress can contribute to heart problems and high blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Individuals with trauma histories may already face a higher risk in this regard. Sleep Disturbances: Stress often leads to sleep disturbances, including insomnia and nightmares. Trauma survivors may already struggle with sleep, and stress can further disrupt their ability to rest.

Managing stress through a trauma-informed lens

While self-care strategies are valuable, a trauma-informed approach to stress management recognises the need for specific strategies that address the holistic needs of each individual, understand that what benefits one individual may be experienced as unhelpful to another. Here are some coping strategies to consider:

Grounding Techniques: Grounding techniques can help individuals reconnect with the present moment, reducing the impact of traumatic flashbacks and anxiety. These may include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and sensory grounding. These is extensive literature documenting the benefits of abdominal breathing of both physical and mental well-being.

Safety Planning: Helping someone to develop a list of safe places and people can be helpful for individuals who are experiencing chronic stress. When an individual feels overwhelmed, they are often unable to think about where they can access support, and/or from whom. Having a list of “safe people” who they can talk things through with, in a non-judgemental, and supportive space may be useful for some individuals.

Self-Compassion: Much of western civilisation focuses on what individuals are able to produce. Successful people are seen as being able to work extremely long hours with list rest. However, for many of us, this can lead to burnout and negative self-appraisals of our abilities and other self-worth. Encouraging self-compassion within ourselves and those around us is important, as many individuals struggle with self-blame and guilt. Practicing self-compassion can be an antidote to these negative self-perceptions.

Holistic Wellness: Encouraging holistic wellness practices, including nutrition, exercise, and adequate sleep, can improve physical and mental well-being. Often individuals who are experiencing high levels of stress feel that they don’t have time to cook fresh meals or engage in hobbies/exercise. However, by not releasing the build up of cortisol by engaging in enjoyable actives/exercising, our nervous system continues to remain activated, leading to a negative cycle where individuals never feel able to pause and relax.

Social Support: There is a reason why children what to spend time with their friends. Our social connections are how we understand ourselves within our worlds. Humans are social creatures, and we rely on one another to emotionally regulate and access our safe and social states. Indeed, we would be horrified at the idea of an animal being kept is social isolation and yet many of us spend very little time socialising with individuals who we can connect with emotionally.

Stress Awareness Week reminds us that, while stress is an inevitable part of life, it doesn't have to be a constant burden. By understanding the psychological and physical effects of stress, we can take proactive steps to manage and mitigate its impact. It's essential to prioritize self-care and seek support when needed, for our mental and physical well-being depend on it. Stress may always be a part of life, but with the right tools and knowledge, we can face it head-on and thrive.

Coping strategies, trauma-informed organisations, and stigma reduction initiatives all play a crucial role in promoting stress awareness from a trauma-informed perspective. By addressing these aspects, we can create a more supportive and compassionate world for trauma survivors, where the complexities of stress are understood and the path to healing is paved with empathy and empowerment.

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