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Why am I stressed: Combating Stress and Effects

Updated on July 12, 2017
Timothy Hayward profile image

Timothy is currently a second year Psychology student in a Top 10 UK university who writes articles on a variety of different subjects.

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What specifically is stress and why do we experience it?

The physiological changes that occur in the body can be explained by the HPA axis. It begins at the hypothalamus which signals the pituitary gland to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropin hormone) which signals the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids known as cortisol, the main stress hormone.

When our bodies experience the stress response cortisol which is released functions to keep the body alert and away from immediate danger, i.e acutely known as the flight/fight response which is beneficial as in evolutionary terms kept us alive from dangerous predators. Due to natural selection, we have maintained the stress response to ultimately carry on the survival of the human race. Today, we the stress response still functions to keep us alive even though there are no large predators walking about in the urban environment. However, we still have the same physiological changes that occur.

Everybody labels the stress response differently when a series of physiological changes occur. We all give stressful events (stressors) a different meaning from our own individual experiences which are subjective and that is why we all experience stress differently.

Types of Stress

Acute stress

This is the most common form of stress and is associated with immediate short-term stresses of life such as a deadline you need to meet, receiving a speeding ticket or going to a job interview. Short term stress can be managed and can not cause serious damage being in the short term. Also known as the flight/fight response is a rush that prepares the body for danger which is a normal healthy response.

Acute stress can be beneficial for the body. For example, relating to the immune response, there is a change in leukocyte (white blood cell) distribution which takes the position at "battle stations" i.e at the entrances of the body where bacterium can enter such as at the skin and gastrointestinal tracts. Also, lymph nodes prepare for immune challenges due to the acute stress response which is beneficial (Dhabhar, 1996).

Confused about lymph nodes? Let me explain, the lymph nodes act as a filtration system which circulates lymph (a water substance) this takes pathogens (foreign cells) from the blood using lymph capillaries. Lymph nodes also aid in the immune response as it contains lymphatic follicles which contain B lymphocytes (B cells) that produce antibodies in response to infections. Also, T lymphocytes (T cells) are present in lymph nodes which contain the different chemical structures for all the foreign cells which are known to the body which is needed to fight various bacteria and viruses. This is why vaccinations are important, as a small amount of the virus is injected into the body so that the adaptive immune system can learn the chemical structure of the pathogen which is needed to fight it.

Episodic acute stress

Have you ever had one friend who seems constantly rushed and doesn't seem to be organised enough with their lives or cannot seem to handle demands placed on them? They could be suffering from episodic acute stress which is when individuals suffer from acute stress more often. It is caused by over-arousal which produces symptoms such as tension headaches, chest pain or migraines, this tension can take the form of anxiety and depressive symptoms. Socially, episodic acute stress can have negative effects on relationships and interpersonal skills. Also, this type of stress can be driven by worrying a lot more about life events and having a pessimistic outlook on life. Over time, this lifestyle of worry or tension can be intertwined with personality factors and this way of thinking and behaving becomes ingrained and for the individual, it is seen as normal.

Chronic stress

Constant stress is known as chronic stress which you probably have heard of before because of all the health problems relating to continual stress. When a stressful situation in your eyes cannot change for the better and you are "stuck" with this continuing event or lifestyle this is recognised as chronic stress. Examples could include unemployment, an unhappy marriage or constant financial worries.

Symptoms include muscular tension like headaches, cramps and back pain. These increased physiological changes can result in high blood pressure, increased heart rate and migraine headaches. Studies show that chronic stress has negative health effects which have been linked with, asthma, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems and obesity.

Sadly, people who experience chronic stress adapt themselves and continue to experience this type of stress because they are used to it as it feels normal to them which ties nicely to learned helplessness. Which is the state of powerlessness in an effort to succeed. To put this into context, a baby elephant can be overpowered or beaten when small by "trainers". An adult elephant who has been beaten when young will not escape from a simple rope because it believes it will lose and get punished. Despite the obvious fact that an adult elephant can overpower at least 10 humans. Stress is a perception which is built on a belief system through experience or conditioning over time, which can be changed through self-examination and learning or therapy.

Quick Fixes: Some tips for stress

  • Exercise more to release endorphins to make you feel better
  • Remove yourself from stressful situations that make you anxious or angry
  • Improve your sleep hygiene to rest better though the night
  • Eliminate negative people and relationships
  • Improve your social life laughter really is the best medicine
  • Get professional help as a last resort
  • Improve time management
  • Keep a journal
  • Get dancing
  • Improve your diet
  • Learn relaxation techniques such as meditation

Cognitive Biases: Thinking errors causes stress

What is a cognitive bias?

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking which affects how we judge and make decisions that affect our emotional response to events that can contribute to stress. I've only included a picture here because it is such a big topic to discuss. Being human we are influenced by illogical thoughts which are not helpful to us. Applying better reasoning and explanations to people's behaviour and situations we find ourselves in the more clarity and understanding we will have thus reducing stress. This compliments stoic thinking and is also used as the foundational component of cognitive behavioural therapy which has been scientifically proved to improve anxiety and depression among other mental disorders.


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How to get rid of stress

Improve your reasoning and organisational skills

Having to-do lists and plans of actions for certain events and using reason have excellent beneficial effects. Why? When actions can be quantified they can be measured and thus controlled and improved. Your perception control in relation to events will influence how stressed you are. For example, if you needed to give a presentation in 3 days you can perceive this as stressful. However, once you have established a plan, for instance, using 7-am to 9-am for the next two days to create it. Having a set order of items to discuss can be used to fall back on in case you lose track or get interrupted. It will give you the belief to succeed known as self-efficacy and you will feel better about giving the presentation. Research, planning and creating protocols will improve your performance and attitudes overall. In other areas, eliminate unnecessary tasks and have set priorities in place so you can order which events you deal with first when things get out of hand.

Above, I explained that having organisational skills can improve our stress levels because for me at least uncertainty and the unknown can be stressful. Which is where the importance having control comes in, the perception of control over life events known psychologically as the locus of control can be improved and we can adopt a healthier outlook such as stopping negative self-talk, cut down on should/would phrase as this places demands which will promote rigid negative thinking. Let me include an example, "I hate this! I must get all 3 reports completed today!" can be changed to "Fantastic! I've got all day today free, right, I could complete 1 report today to a high standard so I can focus more on the other 2 reports tomorrow".

The pitfall of focusing on control is when you focus your self-worth on external factors and individuals who are "people pleasers" are a prime example. Unless you a tactfully working up a company to get promoted or to gain influence over others you should not depend your happiness on the satisfaction of other people as this spells disaster. Your control, attitudes and the beliefs to succeed should come from within. Furthermore, if a task is of high importance which will cause you stress if done properly for your job role/lifestyle do not demand that from other people. Focusing on your own tasks and responsibilities is most important because when you worry about how other people are completing or not completing tasks you put yourself in a stressful state because you have no control of how other people are doing as it is external.



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See the light at the end of the tunnel

Optimism Vs Pessimism is absolutely crucial, learning to be optimistic is the most helpful tools you can utilise. Talking to friends about problems and getting different perspectives can light the spark to different possibilities. Being a student I have relied more on my knowledge and learning than ever before. When I was 18 I became mildly depressed and it felt awful then something happened, something inside me said enough is enough and I picked up a cognitive therapy book and it helped my adopt new perspectives and I slowly changed my lifestyle to be more positive and have a better outlook. Now, everyone is different and different stresses and experiences will require different levels of help. However, the most important aspect is to hold onto those beliefs that change can happen. Everything can change in an instant, it is only the matter of believing in yourself and what you are capable of achieving. Take a moment and imagine what you can change as you are the creator of your own life.

How well do you think you handle stress?

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