Stress is an unavoidable companion of a busy modern life. So learning to recognise overstress and how to deal with pressure is crucial for overcoming life's daily challenges!
People deal with stress in very different ways. As the deadline for the article you’re just reading approaches, I could either be:
- Overstressed and worrying like crazy! Damnit, I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish this piece on time. Why haven’t I started writing it earlier?! Gaah, I never learn. Stop barking stupid dog, I can’t focus!
- Invigorated and ready to do this. I’ve done it before and I’m going to do it again. No more slacking, let’s get to work!
- Perfectly calm. Everything is fine. Everything is going to be fine even if I have only an hour left. I’ll think of something or some excuse. I have no idea why people worry so much.
The situation is always the same, so what do my reaction and behaviour depend on? Yep, you’ve guessed it - stress tolerance.
In this article we’re going to discuss what stress tolerance means, how different stress tolerance levels affect us, what does it have to do with our genes and how we can manage it.
What is stress tolerance?
Stress tolerance is your stress threshold at which you can still normally manage stressful situations. It’s the amount of stress you can handle without getting overwhelmed.
Lower stress tolerance means you’re more easily annoyed or frustrated by minor inconveniences and find it harder to relieve stress.
Stress tolerance can also be called stress sensitivity as it determines how sensitive you are to stressful situations.
Why it’s important to know your stress tolerance
Stress is a double-edged sword. It can be a source of adrenaline, it can motivate us, and it can help us focus. But it can also be overwhelming and harmful.
Stress is a signal we need to pay attention to. Each person can tolerate or even enjoy a certain amount of stress. However, as the pressure builds, we can quickly exceed our stress tolerance levels.
That’s when stress becomes detrimental and negatively impacts our decision making. It’s when our initial stress response shifts from “fight” to “flight”. Exceeding our stress tolerance on a regular basis leads to anxiety, panic attacks, health concerns, and other long term problems.
As we live in a fast-paced world full of potential stressors, we need to take care to recognize them, see how they make us feel, and manage them so that they don’t cause chronic stress. Remember, stress is subjective and all too often we neglect certain stressors because “this really shouldn’t stress you out”. Stress isn’t about “should” or “shouldn’t” - if it does stress you out, recognize it so that you’ll be able to act accordingly.
Speaking of which - you should have a basic plan on what to do when you exceed your stress tolerance. People that don’t know how to manage stress usually resort to short term solutions, including alcohol, drug use, smoking, and an unhealthy diet. This is often the beginning of a downward spiral, which results in feeling either numb or overstressed.
Let’s see what happens when someone is overstressed.
Symptoms of being overstressed
Overstress is a condition caused by a constant exposure to stress that exceeds an individual’s stress tolerance. A lifestyle that causes excessive stress is the main cause, but as stress is subjective, it’s hard to discuss universal triggers.
People that have low-stress tolerance are especially susceptible to being overstressed.
What happens when you’re overstressed? To put it simply, some of the neurotransmitters (and their pathways) making you feel happy, fail. The main three neurotransmitters affected by overstress are serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. There’s either a shortage of them or your brain doesn’t respond to them like it usually does.
That leads to the aforementioned downward spiral and following symptoms.
The most dangerous aspect of being overstressed is not one specific symptom. It’s a combination of them that makes you feel overwhelmed and defeated. It can also lead to substance abuse in order to keep out with the lifestyles that led you to being overstressed in the first place. It’s a vicious spiral that’s tough to escape.
Fortunately, there are many different ways to manage stress and stress tolerance. We’ll talk about them soon. But first, let’s look at the other side of the coin and see if it’s possible to have too much stress tolerance.
Is having a high stress tolerance a good thing?
At first glance, not feeling stressed seems like a blessing. And it might be if it comes from eliminating most of the stressors. However, not feeling stressed because of an extremely high stress tolerance can quickly become a problem.
It’s important that you feel a sense of urgency to deal with a critical situation, acknowledge your limits and pay attention to the pressure building around you. The thing is; you are still experiencing stress, and stress is still harmful - you’re just better at tolerating it.
If your stress tolerance is too high, you are more likely to:
- Overestimate your capacity to get things done. Such individuals can quickly become a single point of failure and impede business processes.
- Normalize continuous pressure and living in a state of stress.
- Show a lack of empathy towards those who are experiencing stress and can’t cope with high-stress environments.
- Settle for a level of dysfunction instead of solving core issues and eliminating stressors.
- Ignore the necessary rest and recovery, which impacts your performance.
If your stress tolerance is too high, you are less likely to:
- Ask for help and you just “don’t see the problem”.
- Identify the source of stress and instead just treat the symptoms when necessary.
- Change your behaviour when someone else points out any weaknesses.
- Reflect on your strategy and tactics when striving for success.
Feeling stress is a way of gathering information. It tells you that you are reaching your capacity. It lets you know when something needs to change. Ignoring the signals can lead to less efficient work, burnout and many other problems.
What is responsible for having low or high stress tolerance?
Environment certainly plays a huge role - everything from our job, our friends, our family, our upbringing, our financial situation and more. There are many factors. If you’re unable to figure out which are the main stressors in your life, experts like psychologists can definitely help you out.
How do genes affect your capacity for coping with stressful situations?
Stress is an unavoidable companion of a busy modern life. But whether we thrive or break under pressure is determined by our genes.
Understanding how our genes influence the way we respond to stress is the first step in successful stress management.
Meet the COMT gene. It codes for a COMT enzyme which breaks down chemicals released during stress: dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine. You probably know adrenaline as “a stress hormone” and dopamine as “the pleasure hormone”, but they both play a significant role in your body’s response to stress.
Depending on what variant of the COMT gene you have, the COMT enzyme it produces can be either very active or not. And that determines if you are a warrior or a worrier.
When under stress, your body gets flooded with dopamine and adrenaline.
Warriors possess highly active COMT enzyme, and more of the enzyme means a bigger army breaking down the hormones and returning balance to your body.
Worriers have a decreased COMT enzyme activity, which means less enzyme and slower breakdown of dopamine and adrenaline. Not subdued by the enzyme the stress-inducing hormones will push your body beyond its optimal levels, causing you to fold under pressure.
12 ways to manage stress
The first step when managing stress is paying attention to what’s causing it, how you’re responding, and how long the stress is sticking around. Simply acknowledging stress is an important first step as nowadays people far too often ignore or even deny it.
The second step is to try out a few different methods of managing stress and see which ones work best for you. Here are 12 ways of managing stress you can try out.
Research has shown that focusing on the breath or changing the breathing pattern can make a big difference to the overall stress level. Breathing techniques can calm our body and mind in just a few minutes. While shallow breathing is associated with stress, deep breathing oxygenates your blood and clears your mind.
Try a simple 3 to 5-minute exercise: get yourself in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and bring your attention to your body and breath. Let your breath flow as deep into your stomach as is comfortable, without forcing it. It may be helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. Then, without stopping or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again.
Mindfulness and meditation
We spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around us, contemplating events that happened in the past, may happen in the future, or will not happen at all.
Mindfulness is a practice aiming to increase awareness of the present experience (events happening within and outside you). This technique includes curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Several research studies have shown that practising mindfulness and meditation can have a significant and positive impact on mental and physical health; reducing stress and improving the quality of life and sense of well-being.
A well-balanced diet
There is growing evidence that changes in our diet can affect general mood. An unprocessed diet high in fruit and vegetable, healthy forms of protein and fats, has been associated with increased happiness, life satisfaction, well-being, and better mental health outcomes.
Therefore, try to ensure that your diet provides adequate amounts of nutrients required for brain function, such as essential vitamins and minerals, as well as water. A Mediterranean-style diet made up of fruits, vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, yoghurt and cheese, nuts, whole grains, seafood, and lean meat is recommended.
Try to avoid foods that seem enjoyable at the time but then make you feel worse, such as eating unhealthy sugary foods or drinking too much alcohol.
Moderate caffeine intake
Consuming too much caffeine can aggravate anxiety. It is because caffeine can disrupt your sleep and speed up your heartbeat. Research has shown that caffeine consumed up to 6 hours before going to bed might also reduce total nightly sleep and sleep quality. If you are tired, you are less likely to be able to control your anxious feelings.
Thus, consumption of caffeine should be moderate. Instead of coffee or energy drinks, try herbal tea with calming effects, such as chamomile, peppermint, or lavender.
Sufficient and quality sleep
Research has shown that those who sleep well are more satisfied with life. In contrast, sleep disruptions have been associated with negative psychological consequences such as depressed mood, anxiety, poor emotion regulation, and “repetitive negative thoughts”.
An extensive survey revealed that individuals who reported getting more sleep also had higher overall well-being than those who slept less.
For optimal health, most adults need an average of about 7-9 hours of sleep each night. A sleeping schedule you stick to can have a huge impact on your daily life. Try to establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine such as taking a bath or listening to music.
Connect with friend and family
People who cultivate high-quality relationships experience higher well-being, life-satisfaction, and quality of life than those who do not nurture any relationship. It has been shown that individuals with a good support network of colleagues, friends, and family, cope better with stress and grief, job loss, or illness.
When you are feeling stressed, it is therefore recommended to take a break and call a friend to talk about your problems. A reassuring voice, even for a minute, can ease your problems and help you see things differently. Also, the activities we do with friends and a good laugh are excellent stress relievers.
Doing things you enjoy is a natural way to relieve stress. Research has shown that individuals who are engaged in more frequent enjoyable leisure activities, such as hobbies, sports, socialising, or spending time in nature had better psychological and physical functioning. They reported greater life satisfaction, life engagement, and social support.
When you are feeling stressed, try to find pleasure in simple things that make you feel good. These can include painting, reading a book, meeting a friend or a hobby such as knitting, making jewellery, practising meditation or yoga, working in the garden, or doing a home decorating project. Especially the kind of work and leisure that engages your skills (cooking, playing an instrument, or dancing), is a good way to enjoy yourself and feel accomplished.
Listening to relaxing or upbeat music
Listening to music might beneficially impact health by reducing stress. Listening to your favourite tunes before a stressful situation influences your body's response to stress, and helps you recover faster.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by a stressful situation, try to take a break and listen to relaxing music.
Research has shown that exercise improves general well-being by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. The frequency of physical movement throughout the day, even if this movement is not rigorous exercise, has also been associated with happiness.
Therefore, you should try to find some time every day to, at least, go for a walk. That can help you combat stress, release tension, and improve your mood. Beneficial forms of exercise also include brisk walking, running, weightlifting, biking, dancing, hiking, swimming, and many more.
Having a dedicated journal means having a safe place to process thoughts and emotions at the end of a day, as well as to take notes on when you notice stress building up. It can help you process your thoughts and feelings as well as better understand what’s causing your stress. It can give you a new perspective and shine a light on some things you should change or avoid.
Accept what you cannot change
Changing a difficult situation is not always possible. Try to focus your time and energy on the things you do have control over, such as your effort and attitude, and help yourself feel better.
Research has shown that gratitude (appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to you) contributes to the subjective feeling of happiness and general well-being.
Look for the positives in life and try to be thankful for the little things, like a long walk on a sunny day, a cup of hot chocolate, a bubble bath, or re-watching your favourite movie. You can keep a gratitude diary in which you write down three things you are grateful for every day. This will train your attention to focus on the positive things in life.
Learn what impacts your mental wellbeing
Stress tolerance is just one of the factors that affect us. If you’re curious about your genetic predispositions when it comes to performing under pressure, seasonal mood problems, coping with fear, sleep patterns, and much more, take our Mind and Wellbeing DNA test.
The report tells you what you should pay special attention to and gives you useful recommendations on how to handle stressful situations according to your genes.
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