Stress or pressure – is there a difference?

Stress or pressure

We often hear people talking about being under “stress”. Tight deadlines at work, colleagues who can be a little tetchy, and that damned IT system playing up again can all result in people complaining and saying ‘I’m stressed out today’. Well, generally speaking, they are not ‘stressed’. Actually, they are under “pressure”.

There is an important difference between pressure and stress. Someone who is suffering from stress will certainly know about it, because they will have needed help to sort themselves out. But more on that later. Firstly, let’s talk about ‘pressure’.

Pressure is good for us. Pressure helps the body to prepare for the ‘flight or fight’ response. Our brain wants to keep us safe so whenever it senses danger it releases chemicals into the body. I refer to this as ‘pressure events’ that trigger a response.

What is a pressure event? Well, it is anything that the brain detects as danger, or put another way, something that the brain detects as abnormal. Imagine sitting quietly at lunchtime, sitting in a comfy chair while enjoying a sandwich from Marks & Spencer. Someone creeps up behind you and shouts BOO. Almost immediately your brain will respond. You heart rate will go up, your arteries will dilate a little, your breathing will increase and your pupils will dilate too. All of this will happen in less than one second. Your brain has sensed danger and has put you on a state of readiness to react. But, you are not under stress. You are under pressure.

Brain and body arousal

Without getting too scientific, the following sequence of events follow a pressure event. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain senses something is abnormal. An immediate response is made through the Hypothalamus Pituitary and Adrenal System (the HPA axis). A special hormone is released, called the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).

The pituitary gland comes into action at this stage and it releases adrenocorticotropic-releasing homones (ACTH) into the blood system. ACTH acts on the adrenal cortex and tells it to release cortisol. The adrenal system then releases adrenalin into the blood system, while insulin is produced in the pancreas to convert some glucose into glycogen, just in case the body needs a blast of energy.

And all of this happens because someone said BOO!

The point I am making here is that the brain will react to pressure. Sometimes, pressure is because of an external event or sometimes it is simply because we think something. When we get angry at a person the brain sees this as a pressure event and, again, releases all those chemicals.

Pressure on a daily basis is good for us. It tests the central nervous system and it gives it a good workout. We might experience over 100 pressure events every day. Think about it. The driver who cut us up this morning, the coffee machine that delivered a latte instead of an Americano and the MD who failed to read the report that you spent last night preparing. These are all pressure events. And, they are good for us. Well, maybe not the MD one – that is just downright annoying!

Crossing the line

Now then, I want to explain something that I call ‘crossing the line’. Imagine a line drawn in the sand. The line is just out of reach of the tide. Imagine placing a brand-new ipad on the sand just above the line, on the dry side. You sit back and watch the tide come in. You know that it will ebb and flow as it gets nearer and nearer to the line, but you know that the usual tide never quite reaches the line in the sand, so your ipad is quite safe.

One day, an unusual event occurs. The tide comes and goes as usual but you start to worry because the ebb and flow is getting faster. Something is wrong today. Suddenly, a vast tide comes up, crosses the line and drenches your brand-new ipad. It is damaged beyond repair.

The line in the sand is analogous to pressure events. When pressure bobs about inside our brains it can come and go nicely, without causing too much harm. However, when pressure events start to come more frequently, and pile on top of one another, there comes a point when the line is crossed. That is the stage when pressure changes to stress.

With most people, crossing the line is a major and serious stage. Most people will never be able to get back below the line again, not without proper help. Their symptoms will continue to manifest as irritability, sleep disturbance, eating disorders, compulsive behaviour and a whole load of other things.

Antidepressants and therapy

Crossing the line is when normal everyday pressure turns into a serious medical condition. At this stage, a person will be in much need of help. It is far from impossible to get back to normal again, but it will take time and patience. Depression is a very common symptom at this stage. A person suffering from stress should visit their GP, who will more than likely prescribe medication, often antidepressants. One of the most common types of antidepressant are the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). These help to sort out the chemical imbalances in the brain.

Why does a chemical imbalance occur in an otherwise healthy brain? Well, the answer is simple really. Remember the story about BOO? All those chemicals that are released each time we have a reaction to a pressure event need to disperse. If pressure is under control and we are not subjected to too much pressure, the flood of chemicals can fairly easily dissipate and be converted into chemicals that can pass out of the body. However, when these chemicals reach an amount that overwhelms the brain and body, the balance within the brain can be disturbed. We need medication at this stage to sort out the imbalance.

Something very important though is that medication on its own is not always enough. Medication will definitely treat the symptoms but they rarely fix the cause. Cause and symptoms is something that I will mention a lot in further posts and podcasts. Suffice to say for now is that symptoms will always appear because something is wrong. The cause of the problem needs to be fixed and this is where counselling and therapy come in. Hypnotherapy is an excellent technique for delving into the brain to access the cause of the problem. Find the cause and the symptom will disappear.

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