Is the Water Getting Too Hot to Jump Out?

cartoon frog leaping away from a pot of boiling water

I came across a story several years ago that I refer to frequently, including once in an interview. The boiling frog phenomenon describes how, if a frog is placed in a pot of boiling water it will immediately jump out, the water is too hot. However if a frog is placed in a pot of cool water and a low heat applied, the immediate surrounding is comfortable so the frog stays in the water.  Eventually the water heats up and gets too hot for the frog to jump out.  

I know that is a pretty grim analogy, however how often have you found yourself in a situation where you suddenly feel totally overwhelmed, helpless and maybe even hopeless? When you find yourself in this place, not only do you not know what to do for the best, but often you do not have the energy to do it. 

It is likely that your feeling of being overwhelmed increased gradually, much like the temperature of the water for the frog.  By the time you recognised the potential impact of the situation on your stress levels, it was too late to avoid that feeling of lack of control and hopelessness. Not a good place to be and a sign of chronic stress, or a long-lasting exposure to stressful triggers. 

Not all stress is bad for us. Some stress can be motivational, for example physical training is a way of putting your body under acute stress to challenge it to improve in either fitness or strength. Acute stress responses are also the body’s way for humans and mammals to prepare for fight or flight, an evolutionary survival trait. 

The trick is to be able to pay attention to the temperature of the water isn’t it? At Eat, Move, Be Happy we also think it is about paying attention to what is causing the water to heat up in the first place and having ways of cooling the water down, or of jumping out, before it gets too hot to handle.   

This article looks at ways you can improve awareness of your stress levels and what triggers an increase in stress for you. It also explores why some people appear to be able to cope better than others with more stress and ways you can be more effective at maintaining more acceptable stress levels more of the time. 

What is Stress?

Stress, most people would say an inevitable fact of life resulting from the demands of busy lifestyle commitments, expectations and events. 

A simple definition is:

Stress occurs when pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope. 

S. Palmer, 1999.  Psychologist

Some people appear to be better at dealing positively with higher stress levels than others.

Some people seem to thrive in the ‘busy’ness of life and take everything thrown at them in their stride. Others appear to flounder and generally be more easily overwhelmed with seemingly inconsequential life events. 

Palmer also described stress as a  “psychological, physiological and behavioural response”  when a person feels they are unable to cope, “… which, over a period of time, leads to ill-health.”

So your response to a situation you perceive to be stressful can impact how you think and feel, can cause your body to automatically respond physically and ultimately how you behave.

The psychological response

When your stress response is triggered it is common for emotions to heighten, for example you may feel anxious, nervous, frustrated or angry. It is easy for these emotions to feed off each which contributes to the sense of feeling completely overwhelmed in more extreme situations.

These emotional responses are individual and vary from person to person. One person’s feeling of anxiousness may be another person’s feeling of nervous excitement. It is when the response causes the feelings of being unable to cope that problems can occur. When the more negative emotions are experienced for longer time periods this can cause physical symptoms. This might also be as a result of a one-off event such as a trauma or the death of a loved one.

The physiological response 

cartoon picture showing stress response, increased heart rate, higher blood pressure etc

You do not have control over your physiological response to stress. This is triggered by hormones released to prepare the body to deal with the perceived danger by staying to fight or by running away. This fight or flight is the survival mechanism that has kept us from being eaten by sabre-toothed tigers (remember Diego from Ice-Age).  And this is quite important; the reason humans and mammals have a stress response.

You will be able to relate to this physiological response even if it didn’t result in an actual fight or you physically running. It doesn’t have to be a sabre-tooth tiger to pose the danger. Today this perceived danger can come in different forms; increased workloads, fear of failing or getting something wrong, health worries, a phobia, for example fear of spiders or heights. I am sure you will be able to remember having butterflies in your tummy, heart racing, clammy palms or increases in perspiration, breathing faster and maybe feeling tense or shaky. These are the responses you are aware of. In addition, the hormones released cause increases in blood pressure, alter blood sugar levels and can impact the heart rhythm. 

The behavioural response

Feeling stressed can cause you to change the way you behave, towards yourself and others. You may become withdrawn and avoid social contact with colleagues, friends and family. You may be more emotional, for example snapping at people, be more tearful, or feel greater levels of frustration or aggression, even at seemingly insignificant events.

When stress levels are high you may also find your eating and drinking habits change; usually for the worse. It is common for sleep patterns to be disrupted and feeling tired exacerbates the feelings of not being able to cope – and so the cycle continues.

The Impact of Stress

It is now known that living with the stress responses for prolonged periods of time (chronic stress) causes problems for your psychological and physical health. For example heart disease, diabetes, problems with the immune system, greater risk of stroke and increases in anxiety and depression.

So whilst your body’s stress response in short measure (acute stress) can be a motivator and enables you to prepare to cope physically and mentally for your challenge (whatever that is… jumping off a 500m platform into muddy water for example!!! Ok, maybe not 500m, maybe 15m…) repeated exposure to high levels of stress hormones can be seriously harmful to health and wellbeing.

If you still needed convincing that stress is a major problem and one you should pay attention to, there are some alarming statistics relating to the societal and economic impact of stress. Results of a survey commissioned by Mental Health Foundation in 2018:

74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

32% of adults said they had experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress

16% of adults said they had self-harmed as a result of stress

And the Health and Safety Executive report work days lost due to work related stress, anxiety or depressions as:

12.8 million days in 2018/19  

It seems sensible to take this seriously, both personally and societally. What do you do to manage your stress levels?

Managing Your Stress Levels 

At Eat, Move, Be happy we believe there are 3 stages to this:

  1. Raising your awareness of what stress actually means for you
  2. Recognising your stress triggers
  3. Developing and using strategies to cope with your stress levels

Notice I didn’t say maintain no stress. This isn’t practical and actually for most people some ‘stress’ is a useful motivator to get things done. There is nothing like a looming deadline to focus the mind!

The Stress Container is a simple model to help explain why people respond differently to different situations and at different times in their life. 

The interactive MHFA England Stress Container tool explains this concept. 

stress container MHFA England

The size of your stress container is dependent on your natural sensitivity or vulnerability. The more sensitive or vulnerable you are, the smaller your container, so in theory it fills up more quickly than someone with a larger container. When life throws stressful events at you these fill up your container and if you are unable to release the level through the tap at the base of the container, representing coping strategies, the container overflows. This is represented in the frog story of when the water reaches boiling point and the frog is unable to jump out of the pot.

  1. Raising your awareness of what stress actually means for you

People experience different tolerances to levels of stress. Some people are naturally more sensitive and respond more acutely to  stress, even perceived positive events, for example going on holiday can cause worry and concern. For these people their Stress Container will be smaller than for others who seem more able to cope with stressful situations and appear more resilient. Find out more Look After your Wellbeing and Build Your Resilience.

Sometimes external factors can play a part in your ability to manage your stress levels, for example the Covid-19 crisis has created wide reaching impact for people with concerns about physical and mental health, financial security, job security and ways of working, relationships and social connection. The social isolation to manage the pandemic imposed changes to how people live have added to the amount of stress and raised the levels in the container for many, myself included.

Some questions to consider:

  • How aware are you of how you respond to stress now?
  • How do you know you are feeling stressed?
  • Do you spend more time feeling unable to cope or more time feeling in control?

A simple activity to help you identify factors that are adding to your stress levels now and your coping strategies is to write down all the life events and commitments that you are experiencing now. Think of this as what is in your stress container. 

  1. Recognising your stress triggers

These can be everyday occurrences, particular situations or one off significant events. 

For example, you may feel more anxious or concerned about a presentation for work, a difficult conversation with a colleague or your performance in a netball match. These are short lived and typically once you are in the situation you relax and settle, able to do what you need to do.

I get nervous before netball matches and any race events. It is my natural response to these situations and my nerves serve to help me focus and motivate me to perform to the best of my ability. However, when I have perceived the match or event to have more importance, for example the match for the league title or an event that is really testing my physical and mental capability, these nerves can get in the way. I teeter on the line between nervous motivation and feeling absolutely terrified, doubting my ability to take part. I tend to go quiet (which is very unusual) and have the typical physiological responses of racing heart, fidgetiness and feeling sick.

Other stress triggers are one-off significant life events. It is well known that some of the most stressful things we can experience in our lives include bereavement, moving house, getting married and having a baby. The last three of these could be happy occasions and yet they can still be stressful.

If you are experiencing lots of short-lived stressful situations regularly and a more significant event, these can build up. Think back to the simmering frog story, the water is getting gradually warmer. This is when problems can begin to emerge.

children playing on a playground roundabout
Is your roundabout spinning too fast?

Another way of looking at this is explained by my playground roundabout story. As a child I used to love playing on the roundabout – up to a point. It would start off as a fun, playful activity and then this feeling would shift to one of more nervous fun as it got faster until eventually it was spinning too fast and I would start to feel sick. The problem was, my roundabout was now spinning too fast to jump off safely. I needed help to slow it down enough so I could get off. 

Some of the triggers for me causing the roundabout to spin too quickly have included workloads and tight deadlines, coping with injuries, concern for the health and wellbeing of friends and family, worries about time available for training and netball. I know I am feeling greater levels of stress when I lose concentration, start forgetting to do things I have promised or committed to do and when my tolerance and patience feels lower.

Other symptoms of stress can include:

  • Changes in your sleeping – either not being able to get to sleep or waking in the night, or excessive sleeping
  • Irritability and difficulty focusing on one thing
  • Aches and pains, including headaches, tummy aches

In more extreme, chronic cases these can also include:

  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Panic attacks
  • Social isolation
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Obsessive or compulsive behaviours

Some questions to consider:

  • What triggers an increase in your stress levels? 
  • How do you know this is the case?
  • What themes or patterns are you aware of in relation to your stress levels?
  1. Developing and using strategies to cope with your stress levels

Being able to reduce the level of stress in your container depends on your having an overflow tap that is working well and not blocked. These coping strategies fall into two categories, according to MHFA England:

  1. Helpful coping strategies, for example exercise, mindfulness and asking for help
  2. Unhelpful coping strategies, for example excessive use of junk food, alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, causing harmful effects.

Being aware of what works as a coping strategy for you is key. Different things work for different people. One of my strategies is exercise, and sometimes this is a full on, work-until-I-can’t-do-any-more session and sometimes a relaxing walk with the dogs. It depends on the situation.

The important thing with coping strategies is balance and moderation. At Eat, Move, Be Happy we are not the junk food, exercise and alcohol police. If you enjoy a glass of wine to help you unwind at the end of a ‘stressful’ day, or grab a burger and fries on the way home, we are not judging. The same as if you are an exercise fiend and exercise a lot we are not saying this is necessarily bad for you. Most people would accept that moderation with alcohol, junk food and limiting the amount of cigarettes you smoke makes good health sense. And the same principle applies to over-exercising, which can also have detrimental health effects.

Knowing what works for you in any given situation, and getting the balance right, is worth spending some time thinking about. It is only within the last couple of years that I have really understood my coping strategies so I can use them more deliberately. Even so, I don’t always get it right.

Going back to my roundabout story, one of the key coping strategies when I am beginning to feel there is too much to do and not enough time to do it, is to stop, take a step back and plan. Spending time planning rather than doing can feel counterintuitive when you are feeling the pressure of lack of time. I know that by planning, reprioritising and asking for help my roundabout is slowed down and I feel more in control and better able to cope.

A point worth noting is I don’t need it to stop completely. I thrive better with manageable stress levels. It is about getting the balance right.

Some questions to consider:

  • How aware are you of using strategies to cope with your stress levels?
  • What strategies do you regularly use to manage your stress levels now and how effective are they?
  • Are any of your strategies more effective than others?

Coping Strategies

Developing a resource kit of a range of coping strategies is a good idea. You will probably find different ways of dealing with different situations and trying some new techniques and skills keeps things interesting.

Some things to consider:

  1. Asking for help

This is a simple and effective way of managing your stress levels. This was covered in the Wellness Planning series. Building a network of people who you can call on, and actually asking them to help, is invaluable.

  1. Practise mindfulness

Helping yourself relax and notice the ‘busy’ness you are dealing with is a good way of helping you prepare for dealing with increases in stress levels. This can help you  ‘get out of the noise in your head’ and gain more perspective.

  1. Practise good sleep hygiene

Be kind to yourself at bedtime. Avoid stimulants – caffeine, alcohol, screen time, just before going to sleep. 

If you have a tendency to wake with stuff on your mind, have a notebook by the side of the bed to write this down. Often you lay awake worrying about forgetting what you’re thinking about. Writing it down means it will be there for you to deal with in the morning.

There are some useful apps you can get to help relax, for example Calm and Headspace or Shusher.

  1. Exercise

Try a routine of regular, enjoyable exercise. Exercising releases de-stressing hormones which counteract the stress response hormones and so can have positive physiological effects. There is also a strong link with increased mental wellbeing.

Try a new exercise, and if this is with a friend, even better. This is another great coping strategy.

Move Better has some interesting stuff about exercise. Worth a look!

  1. Social connection

Spend time with people you enjoy spending time with and talking. This might sound obvious and yet it is easy to forget. Bottling things up is an unhelpful strategy and in my experience, even a chat with friends can help with a different perspective and some ideas on what to try next. And laughing is known to also produce de-stressing hormones. So laugh more and lots!

  1. Self-care

It’s OK to be Selfish talks about the importance of self-care. Prioritising this is often overlooked.

  1. Eat healthily

A balanced diet has huge implications for physical and psychological wellbeing. This doesn’t mean avoiding all junk food but most people can relate to feeling more energetic and positive if they are eating less processed, high fat and sugar foods for more of the time. Eat Better helps you work out your relationship with food and shift your habits to healthier choices.

  1. Build your resilience

According to the charity Mind,

Resilience is not just your ability to bounce back, but also your capacity to adapt in the face of challenging circumstances, whilst maintaining a stable mental wellbeing.” 

At Eat, Move, Be Happy we would also add that resilience includes learning from tough experiences, gaining confidence and growing emotionally stronger as a result. Look After your Wellbeing and Build your Resilience for more practical ways of building your resilience.

In the words of the frog, recognising when the water is getting warmer for you means you can start to deliberately take action to jump out of the pot! 

Some things to consider to help that happen:

  • Have a look at the coping strategies above and identify which feature in your current coping strategy toolkit.
  • Which have you tried before? Which are new to you?
  • Which have you tried and didn’t work? Do you know why?
  • Which will you try in the future and how will you know if they work for you?
  • What other coping strategies do you use that you can share with the Eat, Move, Be Happy wellbeing community through the Peer Support Group?

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