Stress is a word that we hear and use a lot in our daily lives. But what exactly is stress, and how does it affect our health, happiness, and performance? In this article, I will explore the nature, causes, consequences, and management of stress, and provide you with some practical tips and resources to help you cope with stress better.
What is Stress?
Stress is the body's natural response to any challenge or demand that requires adaptation or adjustment. It is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can help us survive, grow, and achieve our goals. For example, stress can motivate us to study for an exam, prepare for a presentation, or face a difficult situation.
However, stress can also become harmful when it is too intense, too frequent, or too prolonged, and exceeds our ability to cope. This can happen when we face multiple or chronic stressors that overwhelm our resources, such as work pressure, family conflict, financial problems, health issues, trauma, and more. When this happens, stress can negatively affect our physical and mental health and well-being, causing various symptoms and disorders.
What are the signs and symptoms of stress?
Stress can affect us in different ways, depending on the type, intensity, duration, and frequency of the stressor, as well as our personality, coping skills, and support system. Some people may experience more physical symptoms, while others may experience more emotional or behavioural symptoms. Some of the common signs and symptoms of stress are:
- Physical: Stress can cause various physical changes in our body that prepare us to fight, flight, or freeze from the threat. These include increased heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscle tension, sweating, etc. However, when these changes persist for a long time or occur frequently without recovery, they can damage our health and cause problems such as headaches, muscle pain, fatigue, insomnia, digestive issues, chest pain, high blood pressure, weakened immune system, etc.
- Emotional: Stress can also affect our mood and feelings in different ways. Some people may feel anxious, nervous, scared, or worried about the future or the outcome of a situation. Others may feel irritable, angry, frustrated, or resentful about the stressor or the people involved. Some may feel sad, depressed, hopeless, or guilty about their situation or themselves. Some may also feel overwhelmed, out of control, or helpless to cope with the stressor.
- Cognitive: Stress can also affect our thinking and mental processes in various ways. Some people may have difficulty concentrating, remembering things, making decisions, solving problems, etc. Others may have distorted or negative thoughts about themselves, others, or the situation by being pessimistic, cynical, self-critical, blaming others, etc. Some may also have irrational or unrealistic thoughts such as catastrophizing, exaggerating, minimizing, etc.
- Behavioural: Stress can also influence our actions and behaviours in various ways. Some people may cope with stress by engaging in unhealthy habits such as overeating or undereating, smoking, drinking alcohol, using drugs, etc. Others may cope by avoiding or escaping from the stressor or the people involved by procrastinating, withdrawing from others, isolating themselves, etc. Some may cope by venting their emotions on others by being aggressive, hostile, rude, or violent. Some may also cope by trying to control everything by being perfectionist, rigid, obsessive-compulsive, etc.
What are the causes of stress?
Stress can be caused by any event or situation that triggers a response in our body and mind. These events or situations are called stressors and they can be external or internal.
External stressors are those that come from outside of us, such as:
- Life changes: These are major events that alter our lives significantly such as moving to a new place, getting married, getting divorced, losing a loved one, having a baby, retiring, etc.
- Work or school: These are demands or challenges that we face in our work or school environment such as deadlines, exams, presentations, conflicts with colleagues or classmates, workload, pressure to perform or achieve goals, etc.
- Family or personal: These are issues or problems that we face in our family or personal life such as financial problems, health issues, relationship problems, parenting responsibilities, caregiving for someone else, etc.
- Environmental: These are factors or conditions that we encounter in our physical surroundings such as noise, pollution, traffic, natural disasters, violence, crime, etc.
Internal stressors are those that come from within us, such as:
- Unrealistic expectations: These are standards or goals that we set for ourselves or others that are too high or too low such as perfectionism, self-imposed pressure, comparing ourselves to others, etc.
- Self-criticism: This is the tendency to judge ourselves harshly or negatively such as low self-esteem, lack of confidence, guilt, shame, etc.
- Negative thinking: This is the habit of focusing on the negative aspects of ourselves, others, or the situation such as pessimism, cynicism, worry, fear, etc.
- Lack of control: This is the feeling of being powerless or helpless to change or influence the situation such as uncertainty, unpredictability, chaos, etc.
What is the treatment for stress?
Most people will experience some form of stress in their lives. If stress is affecting your health and well-being, you may benefit from seeking treatment from a doctor or professional who can diagnose any underlying medical or mental health problems that may be contributing to your stress and provide appropriate treatment options. Some of the possible treatments for stress are:
- Medication: These are drugs that can help reduce some of the symptoms of stress but not address the root causes. They should be used only under the guidance of a doctor and in combination with other forms of therapy. Some of the common types of medication for stress are:
- Antidepressants: These are drugs that can help improve mood and reduce depression and anxiety by affecting the levels of certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Some examples of antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, etc., serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as Effexor, Cymbalta, Pristiq, etc., tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) such as Elavil, Tofranil, Pamelor, etc., and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) such as Nardil, Parnate, Marplan, etc.
- Anti-anxiety drugs: These are drugs that can help reduce anxiety and nervousness by affecting the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. Some examples of anti-anxiety drugs are benzodiazepines such as Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, etc., and buspirone such as Buspar.
- Beta-blockers: These are drugs that can help lower blood pressure and heart rate by blocking the effects of a hormone called adrenaline on the heart and blood vessels. Some examples of beta-blockers are propranolol such as Inderal, atenolol such as Tenormin, metoprolol such as Lopressor, etc.
- Psychotherapy: This is a form of counseling that can help you identify and change the negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that cause or worsen your stress, and teach you coping skills and relaxation techniques to manage your stress better. Some of the common types of psychotherapy for stress are:
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): This is a type of therapy that focuses on how your thoughts affect your feelings and actions and how you can change them to improve your situation. It involves identifying and challenging irrational or unrealistic thoughts such as catastrophizing, exaggerating, minimizing, etc., and replacing them with more rational or realistic ones. It also involves learning and practicing behavioural strategies such as problem-solving, assertiveness, time management, etc., to cope with stress more effectively.
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): This is a type of therapy that combines CBT with mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It helps you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and surroundings and accept them as they are. It also helps you develop a more compassionate and non-judgmental attitude towards yourself and others. MBCT can help you reduce stress by breaking the cycle of negative thinking and emotional reactivity.
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT): This is a type of therapy that focuses on how your relationships with others affect your stress and how you can improve them. It involves identifying and resolving interpersonal problems such as conflicts, role transitions, grief, etc., that may be causing or worsening your stress. It also involves enhancing your communication, empathy, and social skills to build more supportive and satisfying relationships.
- Alternative therapies: These are therapies that are not part of the conventional medical system but may have some benefits for stress reduction and well-being. They should be used as complementary or adjunctive treatments, not as substitutes for professional help. Some of the common types of alternative therapies for stress are:
- Yoga: Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice that originated in India and involves various postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. It can help reduce stress by improving flexibility, strength, balance, and awareness and promoting a sense of calmness and peace.
- Acupuncture: This is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate the flow of energy or qi. It can help reduce stress by balancing the yin and yang forces in the body and restoring harmony and health.
- Massage: This is a technique that involves applying pressure, kneading, rubbing, or tapping on the muscles and soft tissues of the body to relax them and improve blood circulation. It can help reduce stress by releasing tension, easing pain, and enhancing mood.
- Meditation: This is a practice that involves focusing your attention on a single object, thought, sound, or sensation and letting go of any distractions. It can help reduce stress by increasing mindfulness, reducing negative emotions, and enhancing well-being.
- Biofeedback: This is a technique that involves using sensors to measure and display various physiological signals such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, skin temperature, etc. It can help reduce stress by teaching you how to control these signals voluntarily and achieve a state of relaxation.
- Hypnosis: This is a technique that involves inducing a trance-like state of altered consciousness in which you are more receptive to suggestions. It can help reduce stress by changing your beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, and/or perceptions related to the stressor.
What are the common stress disorders?
Stress can sometimes lead to more serious mental health disorders that require specialized treatment. These disorders are characterized by persistent or recurrent symptoms of stress that interfere with daily functioning and quality of life. Some of the common stress disorders are:
- Acute stress disorder (ASD): This is a short-term condition that occurs within a month of experiencing a traumatic event such as an accident, assault, war, natural disaster, etc. A traumatic event is one that involves actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence, to oneself or others. ASD is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, dissociation, avoidance, etc., that cause significant distress or impairment.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): This is a long-term condition that persists for more than a month after experiencing a traumatic event. It is characterized by symptoms similar to ASD but more severe and chronic. PTSD can interfere with daily functioning and quality of life and increase the risk of developing other mental health problems such as depression, suicide, substance abuse, etc.
- Adjustment disorder: This is a condition that occurs when a person has difficulty coping with a stressful life event such as divorce, job loss, illness, etc. A stressful life event is one that causes a significant change or disruption in one's normal routine or expectations. Adjustment disorder is characterized by symptoms such as depressed mood, anxiety, anger, hopelessness, etc., that last longer than six months and cause significant distress or impairment.
How can you manage your stress?
Managing your stress is not only important for your health and happiness but also for your productivity and performance. There are many ways to manage your stress effectively depending on your personal preferences and circumstances. However, some general tips to manage your stress are:
- Identify and avoid unnecessary stressors: These are sources of stress that you can eliminate or reduce from your life such as saying no to extra commitments, delegating tasks, prioritizing tasks, avoiding people or situations that trigger your stress, etc.
- Change your perspective and attitude: These are ways of thinking that can help you cope with stress better such as adopting a positive outlook, reframing problems, finding humour in situations, accepting what you cannot change, etc.
- Express your feelings and seek support: These are ways of communicating that can help you relieve stress and find solutions such as talking to someone you trust, sharing your worries and emotions, asking for help, joining a support group, etc.
- Take care of yourself: These are ways of living that can help you maintain your physical health and mental well-being such as eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, avoiding smoking and drugs, etc.
- Make time for fun and relaxation: These are ways of enjoying that can help you recharge your energy and mood such as engaging in hobbies and activities that you enjoy, spending time with family and friends, practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, Yoga, etc.
Stress is a natural and inevitable part of life that can have both positive and negative effects on us. However, when stress becomes too much or too long, it can harm our physical and mental well-being, causing various symptoms and disorders. Therefore, it is important to understand what stress is, how it affects us, and how to manage it effectively. By following the tips and resources provided in this article, you can learn to cope with stress better and improve your health, happiness, and performance. Remember, you are not alone in facing stress, and there is always help available if you need it.
If you are or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, I strongly encourage you to seek help. Please contact your GP or mental health provider today.
There is no shame in seeking help for your mental health and well-being. You are not alone, and you deserve to feel better.