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A Modern Epidemic – Managing the Four Fs of Stress

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Written by Lianne Weaver, Beam Development & Training

As we continue to navigate all the challenges of restrictions on our daily lives and businesses, new research shows that Covid-19 has aggravated another epidemic – the stress epidemic.

April is Stress Awareness Month, and research released by The Stress Management Society reveals that 66% of people in Wales have felt more stressed since the COVID-19 restrictions began in March 2020.

The three key causes for concern cited by the study, carried out by the Stress Management Society and Huawei AppGallery, are feelings of disconnection, uncertainty, and a worrying loss of control. As a result, the Society decided to weave these three key factors into this year’s theme for Stress Awareness Month – Regain Connection, Certainty and Control.

A ‘modern stress epidemic’.

Stress Awareness Month is held annually to increase awareness about the causes and cures for what the Society calls “our modern stress epidemic”.

It describes stress as “one of the great public health challenges of our time”, a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression and linked to physical health problems such as heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems.

We all know how it feels to experience stress – but do you recognise all the signs? Stress can manifest itself in several different ways. These are all normal responses, but if we are to stand any chance of managing our own stress levels we firstly need to be able to identify stress in all its guises.

When we are stressed the part of our brains called the limbic region receives a signal. Some neuroscientists suggest this is a primitive part of our brain, being largely unchanged for thousands of years. Essentially, we are still dealing with some of the same hardware and programming that our cave dwelling ancestors will have worked with.

The principal concern of this primitive part of the brain is for your own safety and survival. Back then of course our physical safety was under daily threat. This may not be the case today – we are not at risk of encountering a sabre-tooth tiger on our way to work. Instead, we are far more likely to be exposed to things which are emotionally threatening. But our brains can’t tell the difference – so the response is exactly the same, whatever the perceived threat.

And when faced with that threat, with our limbic region triggered, we start to exhibit one or more of The Four Fs of Stress.

The Four Fs of Stress:

Freeze– This is one of the most common responses to stress – we freeze in the hope that the danger goes away. We might recognise this today as procrastinating.

Flight – We may have the urge to run away from the source of stress. Today, this might take the form of taking the day off, avoiding calls from clients or switching off your emails.

Fight – We might feel there is no escape and this might lead us to argue with family, or be short-tempered with colleagues, clients or work contacts.

Fawn – This might be a surprising one, but I think it is probably the most common response to stress because it is the most socially acceptable. In primitive times if we were faced with someone bigger or stronger than us we would have known it was pointless to fight, so we learned to fawn. Today we might call this ‘people pleasing’.

Controlling stress when we recognise it.

Recognising that your behaviour is in fact a response to stress is a good first step. Doing this engages the prefrontal cortex – the rational part of the brain. There are also some actions we can take to help to calm ourselves.

  • Take a deep breath. When we become stressed our breathing is likely to become short, rapid and shallow. This triggers the limbic region and starts to increase stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Changing the way you breathe can reduce this impact and allow your brain to move into the rest and digest response.

Try this simple exercise throughout the day:

Take in a slow deep breath through the nose for the count of 6

Hold it for the count of 2

Slowly release for the count of 8

Repeat at least 6 times.

  •  Tell yourself  “I am safe” – as simple as it may sound, studies have found that when we tell ourselves we are safe we calm the stress response. Silently, in your head, repeat “I am safe” whenever you feel stress increasing.
  • Talking to someone trusted can help you get perspective of your worries. This could be a trusted friend, family member, colleague or a professional.

With the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic set to continue for a while yet, now is an important time to take this stress epidemic seriously – to recognise and manage your own stress levels, and perhaps to increase the resources you offer to your teams to help them recognise, accept and know how to deal with stress.