An Overview of Stress and Stress Management
What is Stress?
Death, break-ups, injuries, marriage, pregnancy, lack of money… Anxiety, irritability, insomnia, mood swings, exhaustion… STRESS. What is stress anyway? An infernal throbbing in your head? Severe butterflies in the pit of your stomach? If you were to ask ten different people for their definition of stress, you may receive ten different definitions. Yet, all the definitions may be all similar in one way or another. Often, people define stress in terms of the situation that is “stressing them out”.
The Merriam-Webster Medical dictionary defines stress as: “a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.” Simply put, stress is an emotional, physical or behavioural reaction to a stressor that forces the central nervous system to adapt. This attempted adaption on the central nervous system’s part, causes the symptoms that classify this condition called stress.
Stressors can be either internal or external. Internal stressors affect your body’s ability to manage stress. These factors, such as your physical health, emotional stability and sleep patterns, are affected by external factors in the physical environment (relationships, jobs, family, etc…). Stressors are a normal part of life. They can be either positive or negative. However, when life’s challenges surpass your coping abilities (internal factors), stress results.
Stand and fight or Run for your Life? – Biological Stress Response
In response to an immediate danger or threat, a response called the “fight or flight” response is activated. The stressors that trigger the body’s response also trigger this fight/flight response. The body either prepares to fight the threat (or stressor) or flee the threat or stressor.
During the fight or flight response, chemicals in the body, such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream, causing dramatic changes in our bodies. Our Heart rate and respiratory rate increases, blood pressure raises, and blood flows to the muscles in our arms and legs, preparing us to flee or to fight. These changes also cause our pupils to dilate, sharpening our sight.
During the fight/flight response, everything in the environment seems threatening to us. In a way, we become quite paranoid. While this vigilance can be beneficial short-term, long periods of stress can lead to anxiety disorders and other stress-related psychological disorders. This survival response is potentially dangerous to our health. The reaction can worsen physical, emotional or behavioural symptoms if experienced for a prolonged period.
Signs of Poorly Managed Stress
Often, people who are unaware of the symptoms of stress believe they are experiencing a physical illness. They may visit their physicians to report muscle tension, migraines, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. Others report to psychologists to report excessive nervousness and anxiety, mood changes and the loss of interest in things they once enjoyed. While all these symptoms can be caused by other medical and psychological conditions, they also classify stress.
Individuals who are under a great deal of stress often attempt to manage their symptoms by a series of risky and unhealthy behaviors. Many times people engage in excessive alcohol consumption, illegal drug intake and overeating or under eating. These futile management techniques exacerbate the stress response and lead to more severe physical and psychological ailments.
Long-Term Complications of Stress (Just to name a few)
- Anxiety Disorders and panic attacks
- Eating problems
- Sleeping problems (insomnia)
- Social withdrawal
- Drug abuse (especially alcohol abuse)
- Chronic migraines and headaches
- Heart disease (and High Blood Pressure)
Stress and Suicide
Prolonged stress is a risk factor for depression and suicide. In the United States, suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in the total population and the second leading cause of death among college students. An average of one suicide occurs every 17 minutes.
While most suicides are the result of psychological illness (mainly depression), stress is a significant contributing factor. By teaching coping techniques for stress, beginning at a young age, the suicide rate can considerably decrease all around the world.
Too often, patients visit their general practitioners with physical complains of stress (such as back pain and neck pain) and walk out of the doctor’s office with a prescription slip for drugs. Sure prescription drugs is a valid cure for some of the symptoms of stress but they can be extremely addictive and more potentially dangerous than the symptoms of stress themselves. Combating the underlying cause of the stress is the first step to curing stress symptoms.
Knowing healthy alternatives to deal with stress is the solution. Strategies such as exercise, meditation, and psychological counseling are useful in the management of stress. Holistic remedies such as acupuncture can also be very helpful.
Recipe for Coping
- Reduce stressors (pick your battles)
- Set realistic goals and expectations (not to high, not too low)
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Eat a balanced breakfast (lunch and dinner as well)
- Exercise regularly
- Find time to relax throughout the day
- Take a vacation every once in a while
- Practice relaxation techniques (such as meditation or prayer)
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol
The Three P’s of Stress Relief
#1. Be Patient:
Coping is not an event. You cannot just meditate one day or visit a counsellor once or twice and expect to be cured. Coping with stress is a process that is strengthened with practice.
#2. Be Positive:
Have faith that you can overcome your stress. Faith is not overrated. A lack of faith can be a hindering agent in many circumstances. Faith boosts positivity.
#3. Take it Personally:
This is your life. Don’t let others get you down and don’t wait for them to pull you up when you’re down. Be proactive and pull yourself up but also, don’t be ashamed to accept help when you need it.
Remember, be patient, be positive, and take it personally.
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