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What Is Stress And How Does It Affect Us

Updated on July 21, 2008

What Is Stress?

It is difficult to define stress as it means different things to different people but in general stress is any factor that threatens our physical or mental well being. Such factors can be real (financial problems) or imagined (worry about the future).It is not the factor itself that is damaging but the response to it. Some people have very stressful lives but can manage stress so it does not affect them. For others the smallest worry can have damaging consequences.

It is a common feature of modern life. Everyone experiences it and the best way to learn how to protect the body from it is to learn how to manage it. Stress can undermine the state of our physical and emotional well being. Learning how to manage it maintains our good health and vitality.

So many medical conditions are stress related. The increase in stress levels is a major factor responsible for the increase in popularity of holistic therapies. Stress relief and relaxation provided by such treatments can help people to control and manage their own stress.

There is positive and negative stress. Positive stress is necessary for certain people such as sportspeople or actors, it actually helps them perform better as they can concentrate and focus on the moment ahead. Negative stress is totally different and is any factor which causes us to respond by worrying, panicking or losing concentration.

How does stress affect us?

The body, sensing danger, prepares to face it or run away (fight or flight syndrome). Several systems shut down and the body works to conserve energy to enable movement and escape. Adrenaline rushes into the body to warn of impending danger: the heart rate increases, the blood vessels contract increasing blood pressure, the digestive functions shut down and the muscles contract.

If the perceived danger is removed or escaped from, the stress response has achieved its aim and the body relaxes. However, it is not always easy to get away from the cause of the stress. As a result, the body remains tense and cannot relax. It is this unused response mechanism which is so damaging.

Different types of stress

a) Survival stress-When the body reacts to meet the demands of a physically/emotionally threatening situation. The release of adrenaline produces the “fight or flight” response mentioned before. It is a positive reaction in that it enables the body and mind to react quickly and effectively. It is only when the effects of adrenaline are long term that is can lead to negative stress.

b) Internally operated stress -This type is often caused by a view or reaction of a situation rather than the situation itself. Worry and anxiety can lead to negative thoughts and often leads to a feeling that circumstances are out of control. It is the relationship between the personality and the stress. What may be stressful for one person may be exiting for another!

c) Lifestyle/Work-related Stress -Issues related to your life or work such as:

Financial problems, relationship problems, ill health, time pressures or deadlines, having too much or too little to do!

d) Negative stress -The inability to manage long term stress.

How to recognize stress

It’s not easy to recognize stress. In fact, as levels increase the ability to recognize it decreases. However, what we do know is that it manifests itself in different ways.

Short term symptoms include:

• Increased heart beat

• Rapid breathing

• Increased swelling

• Dry mouth

• Frequency of urination

• Feeling of nausea

• Tense muscles

The above symptoms can help us to survive in a threatening situation but they become negative factors when the adrenaline is not put to this use.

Excess adrenaline can lead to:

• Anxiety

• Frustration

• Negative thinking

• Reduction in self-confidence

• Distraction

Difficult situations are then seen as a threat as opposed to a challenge.

Long term complaints can manifest as:

• Back pain

• Headaches

• Aches and pains

• Excessive tiredness

• Digestive problems

• Frequent colds

• Skin eruptions

• Worsening of asthma

Signs and symptoms of stress

a) Changes in behaviour

Being argumentative

Being less friendly

Becoming withdrawn

Procrastinating

b) Changes in feelings

Losing your sense of humour

Having a cynical, bitter attitude

Lacking self-esteem

Feeling apathetic

c) Changes in thinking

Poor concentration

Being suspicious

Feeling like leaving a job or relationship

Being rigid in your thinking with resistance to change

d) Physical changes

Feeling tired all the time

Experiencing sleep problems (usually poor sleep)

Aches and pains

Suffering from back ache, headaches or migraines

Suffering from indigestion

Hyperventilating

Having palpitations

e) Mental changes

Suffering from anxiety or depression

Fearing rejection

f) Cognitive Distortion

People suffering from stress very often view themselves in a different way, for example; Counselling Spain note that:

Jumping to conclusions – even with no proof, stressed individuals may jump to conclusions. They may assume that others see them in a certain way or they anticipate that things will turn out badly and act as if their predictions are fact.

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