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Stress is an inevitable part of life and intermittent mild or acute stress is normal. It builds up resilience and switches on adrenal glands to release performance-enhancing chemicals, says Dr Helena Popovic, who addressed this week’s FPA conference.

“But chronic or severe stress has a detrimental effect to our performance as well as on our physical, mental and emotional health. Unchecked stress is a contributing factor in every major disease we suffer and can lead to erosion of brain function, depression and body fat deposition. An estimated 80 per cent of the Australian health budget is spent on stress-related conditions,” she says.

Stress is a specific set of responses that occur in the brain and body whenever you face a threat, whether or not it is actually threatening

“Understanding whether you find something stressful is the first clue in effectively managing stress. Some people find public speaking highly stressful. Other people love giving speeches. Some people thrive on deadlines. Other people break into a panic. In some instances, increasing your skills or improving your time management is a first step in stress management,” she says.

When we perceive a threat the brain sends a message to the adrenal glands sitting on top of the kidneys to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream. The role of adrenaline is to set off the fright, flight, fight response. Adrenaline does this by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, muscle strength, arousal, concentration and speed of information processing.

At the same time the adrenal glands release cortisol to reduce inflammation and raise blood sugar levels so that fuel is available for immediate action. The combination of these two hormones provides a massive surge of energy to deal with the threat.

“So not all stress is negative. In the acute stage of stress we are fired up and fully focused. Ability increases and hunger decreases. The technical term for the performance-enhancing stage of acute stress is ‘eustress’. A bit of stress can bring out the best in people.”

Specific examples are mild stage fright or an athlete’s frame of mind before a race – switched on and revved up. But if stress becomes too severe or continues for too long, the brain and body become overwhelmed and hit a tipping point at which performance starts to decline.

Says Popovic: “This tipping point is known as an individual’s ‘allostatic load’. It’s where eustress becomes distress.”

She says effectively managing stress is about understanding what happens at your tipping point. “Your tipping point is where you start to feel you are losing control of a situation. You may not always recognise that loss of control is the basis of feeling stressed, but if you drill down to the core of an issue, lack of control is often a key factor.”

This understanding provides the basis for turning stress into success. Popovic has devised the following acronym to help people cope with stress:

LESS STRESS

L = Look at things differently
E = Evaluate if something really matters
S = Sleep on it
S = Share it with a mate

S = Step out into nature
T = Thank people
R = Read my books! ;-)
E = Exercise your body
S = Still your mind
S = Stay in the present moment

Use this tool next time you are facing a stressful situation you’d like to manage more effectively.

Professional Planner is the leading source of news, information and analysis for Australia's professional financial planning community.
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