This week 4-9th November is National Stress Awareness week.

The word stress is a familiar word in our vocabulary but what actually is stress and how does it affect you?

What is stress?

Stress affects each and every of us, all in different ways – it is a completely normal reaction, in fact small amounts of stress can be a positive, stress can keep us motivated, alert and reactive to danger.

Fight-or-flight response: what happens in the body

When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and enhance your focus—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. (

Stress starts to become a negative when continual stressors build without any relief or relaxation between these stressors, this can result is us feeling overwhelmed and can cause anxiety and panic attacks, the incredibly dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you and how easily you get used to it. It can start to feel familiar, even normal. That’s why it is incredibly important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.

How stress can cause us to feel 

  • irritable, aggressive, impatient
  • overwhelmedEmployee with head in his hands -
  • anxious or nervous
  • unable to enjoy yourself
  • uninterested in the world around us
  • depressed
  • a sense of dread
  • overly worried about your health
  •  lonely.

How stress can cause us to behave

  • finding it hard to make decisions
  • constantly worrying
  • avoiding situations that are troubling you
  • snapping at people
  • biting your nails / repetitive behaviours
  • unable to concentrate
  • eating too much or too little
  • smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual
  • restless, like you can’t sit still
  • feeling tearful
  • poor judgments

How stress can impact us physically

  • Portrait of a young woman looking tired while studying in a college library - www.canineassistedlearning.companic attacks
  • fast thoughts
  • problems sleeping
  • muscle tension
  • nightmares
  • sexual problems, such as losing interest in sex or being unable to enjoy sex
  • tired
  • grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw
  • headaches
  • chest pains
  • high blood pressure
  • indigestion or heartburn
  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • feeling sick, dizzy or fainting.
  • skin conditions

When we are feeling under pressure and overwhelmed, when stress is piling up it is often difficult to see a way out, to know where to start – there are many things we can do to help reduce stress and the first of them is talking about it, opening up a conversation about how you feel can feel like lifting a ton of bricks off your shoulders. Looking at what is causing stress one at a time and putting them in to perspective with realistic strategies.

It wouldn’t be a post from Canine Assisted Learning without mentioning the amazing stress reducing effect dogs can have:

Can dogs really help reduce stress?

Firstly the scientific evidence…It has been shown that following a thirty minute pet therapy session there are enhanced hormone levels of dopamine and endorphins which are associated with happiness and well-being as well as decreased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Odendaal, J. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy – magic or medicine? J Psychosomatic Research 49(4):275-280.

Dogs can also:

  • Lower the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.
  • Promote the release of oxytocin and dopamine.
  • Inhibit the production of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Dogs can be a social lubricant, encourage conversation and promote interaction therefore reducing the feeling of isolation and loneliness

Now we have established animal assisted therapy really does help reduced stress the question is how do dogs help reduce stress in the children we work with?School pupil with a CAL dog -

We work with children with a wide range of complex needs, children that are so stressed and anxious with the traumas going on in their own lives, they are achieving so much by just being able to function at any level in an educational environment. There is one young person’s story in particular I would like to share with you, to protect her identity I will call her Ellie.

Ellie is an eleven year old girl, in her short life she has been subject to severe abuse, she has been in several foster homes, she has a diagnosis of ADHD and her challenging behaviour leads to violent and aggressive outburst. Ellie is unable to communicate appropriately with adults and unable to make or sustain any friendships with her peers. When you first meet Ellie you can see the weight of the world on this vulnerable little girls shoulders, she is heightened, she is anxious, she is stressed, she is scared.

When I first saw Ellie she was kicking the shins of one of her teachers because she was asked to do some work that she did not want to do because she could not do it. Ellie had no other tools to express herself other than violence, she could not do the work, she was worried about the reaction she would get from her peers and teachers, she took control in the only way she knew how, she became violent, she knew the reaction, she knew the outcome. I would like to add here that Ellie’s teachers are wonderful compassionate caring and very skilled professionals who deal with Ellie’s outbursts amazingly.

The first time Ellie met Lilly she was cautious as she is when she meets any new person, her face tight with stress her fists clenched, her brow furrowed, a look of anger in her eyes then after a while there was a visible physical change, Ellie’s face looked different, she was starting to relax it was as if she had began to breathe, she was able to be, she felt relaxed, she felt safe and she was able to smile.

Lilly and myself work with Ellie every week, we have a long way to go but every week we see progress. Working on an emotional development programme Ellie is starting to be able to recognise feelings and emotions, she is starting to recognise how she is feeling and has been able to start using some of our strategies in her school day. Ellie has shown improvements in her behaviour, she is able to stay in class for longer periods of time and is starting to have more positive interactions with her peers. The time Ellie spends with Lilly is a huge contributing factor in helping her work through her problems and reduce the stress in her life. Being able to “just be” being able to breathe, and to be present in that therapeutic time spent with one of our dogs  shows the miraculous way that animals can help reduce stress.

It is not just the young people that benefit from our dogs, we provide stress relief in the workplace too….. find out more in the next blog post.