Stress is influenced by internal and external factors that affect the way you act and react to any stimuli in your environment. While its definition may seem simple, the physiological consequences of stress can give the word a negative and sometimes horrifying connotation. People often say that they are depressed, restless, sleepless, or edgy when they are stressed. Some even experience cardiac problems and high blood pressure as a result of stress. While often associated with many of its negative effects, stress, per se, is not purely negative. It is a natural way of coping with an urgent and pressing situation. The more you know about stress, the better you can use this natural bodily response to your advantage.
Stress by the Numbers
Feeling stressed out? You need to know that you are not the only one who experiences this. A lot of people do, too, as demonstrated by these survey statistics:
Most Americans experience moderate to high stress levels. The three foremost causes of stress are money, work and the economy.
- Most Americans say they experience moderate to high stress levels, with 44% reporting that their stress levels have increased over the last 5 years.
- $300 Billion – the amount of money spent yearly because of stress-related illnesses.
- 48% of people experience sleepless nights because of stress.
- 39% of adults result to eating unhealthy foods and overeating because of stress.
- Americans cite that lack of willpower as the biggest barrier to a stress-free life. However, 70% of Americans believe that willpower is something that can be learned and improved.
- 77% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress.
- 48% reported lying awake at night due to stress.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
The fundamentals of stress stem from the studies conducted by Dr. Hans Selye, a respected researcher. As the founder of the International Institute on Stress in Montreal, he has published 39 books and over 1,700 scientific papers about stress. In his dissertations, Selye defined stress as the body’s non-specific response to any kind of demand. Simply put, it is how the body reacts to changes or stimuli in the surrounding environment. From his research, he emphasizes how “adaptive” stress can be helpful, while “maladaptive” stresses can put strain on the body – leading to illnesses and maladies. With the many stresses of modern life, most view stress with a negative connotation. However, from a biological standpoint, stress can be negative or positive, and even neutral. It just depends on how you handle it.
Stress can hurt as much as it can help. Stress that becomes a negative aspect of life is often the long enduring and debilitating kind. Bad stress is notorious for its ill effects on your health. It can lead to restlessness, sleeplessness, increased perspiration, headaches, muscle stiffness, and difficulty breathing. It can also result in a weakened immune system. Bad stress prods the body to store more fat, thus, it can lead to weight gain. It also causes emotional and mental problems, such as panic attacks, irritability, and substance abuse.
But what about when you can use stress to your advantage? Stress can also be beneficial to you and your performance, helping you rise to the occasion. It serves as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It is the adrenaline you need to pump your heels in a challenge; it is the push you need to explore and go beyond your comfort zone. A good measure of good stress enables you to respond to a demand and defy your normal capacity. It gives you an inkling of your true potential.
Here is an illustration that explain the difference between good stress and bad stress, and where optimal performance lies when it comes to stress:
What Causes Stress?
Stressors, or factors that cause stress, might come from within you. These internal causes include pessimism, perfectionism, non-assertiveness, unrealistic expectations, inflexibility, and the inability to accept uncertainty. Stress also comes from outside your body and often called external stimulus. This kind of stress can arise from relationship problems, work difficulties, financial concerns, major life changes, hectic schedules and domestic issues.
A set of stressors might be so depressing for some people but not so for other people. This is not surprising because different people perceive situations in different ways. One person may dread a stage performance, while another lives for that moment under the klieg lights.
So what situations or factors have been most known to cause stress? Here is a list of some common stress triggers (and not by any means all-encompassing):
- Money and debt
- Work, especially dreaded jobs
- Divorce or relationship dissolution
- Constant caregiving (of yourself and/or loved ones)
- Taking on too many responsibilities
Factors that Affect Stress Tolerance
To reiterate, how stress affects you depends on how much you perceive stress. Given the same workload, two people in the same environment may perform and take their responsibilities differently. This is so because many factors affect a person’s stress tolerance and ability to manage stress. These factors vary from one person to another.
When you feel stress behind you, do you let it drive you nuts? You can let it do that or you can turn around and drive it instead; control it. Stress is addressed in a positive way when it is controlled. A big part in controlling stress is controlling yourself and your thoughts. Having full control of your thoughts allows you to regulate the body’s reaction to stressors. In addition, having self-control enables you to avoid the many stressors that come from acting impulsively (such as gambling or taking on too many projects).
2) Outlook in Life
If you’re wondering how some people are able to keep their composure in the midst of stressful situations, the answer is simple– it’s all in their attitude. How well you maintain a positive attitude in the face of struggles and adversities determines how well you manage stress. Resilience and flexibility all begins with your attitude.
3) Knowledge and Preparedness
Uncertainty fuels stress. The less you know about something, the bigger a monster it becomes. If you are undergoing surgery and bothered about the prospect, research more about the procedure. Demystify the unknown; you may find that it isn’t so bad after all. And even if you learn that the situation is bleak, you can prepare better. Arm yourself with knowledge and prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario will reduce the amount of stress you feel when things go wrong. As they say in the military, PPPPP (prior preparation prevents poor performance).
4) Ability to Deal with Emotions
Do you know how to pacify yourself during situations that test your temper and discipline? If you are able to rein your emotions, you can keep negative stress at bay.
5) Strong Support System
Social support networks are your lifeline to sanity and reality. Keep in touch. Don’t isolate yourself. When stress becomes too heavy to carry alone, a little help goes a long way. Family and friends are valuable support mechanisms.
Persons at Risk of Stress Overload
All people experience certain levels of stress for the greater part of their lives. Unfortunately, the following groups of people are more susceptible to succumbing to stress.
1) The Elderly
For the elderly population, relaxation becomes more difficult to attain as the ability to relax declines. Aging also puts a toll on certain parts of the brain that deal with stress.
2) Urban Dwellers
People living in urban settings face more stress brought about by the demands of city lifestyle, compared to those who thrive in rural districts.
3) Women, Specifically Working Mothers
Single or married, working mothers usually succumb from the health effects of stress because they are burdened with more tasks, compared to their husbands or childless colleagues.
4) The Widowed or Divorced
Studies show that these individuals live shorter lives, compared to married couples.
5) Financially-strained Persons
Uncertainty and stress creep to those devoid of health insurance, or individuals who have been unemployed for long periods of time. Debt is one of the foremost causes of stress and constant worry.
6) Lonely and Isolated People
Constant solitude forces a person to focus on himself and his sources of stress, magnifying it in the process.
7) Victims of Sexual and Domestic Abuse/ Survivors of Accidents and Crime
These people are a lot likely to suffer from lurid recollections of the crime, accident, or abuse they survived. Some of them may get severely traumatized that their memory of the event/s just completely shuts down. They are highly advised to undergo stress debriefing to prevent the likelihood of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
8) Victims of Bullying or Sexual or Racial Prejudice
These people are also susceptible to bad stress. Because of the discrimination that they encountered perhaps early on their lives, they tend to get riddled with insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, thus should be given appropriate attention.
The Body’s Stress Response
When the body is upset or threatened, whether real or perceived, the body responds with stress. When this takes place, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode, also known as the stress response. In order to protect you from what might happen, the nervous system releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. These substances help prepare your body for emergency action. When subjected to stress, your body will experience the following changes:
- Faster heartbeat
- Faster breathing pattern
- Higher blood pressure
- Tightened muscles
- Sharper, more sensitive senses
- Steroid hormone activity is reduced, and white blood cells as well as other immunity-related molecules are moved to the front line: the skin and lymph nodes, where infection can most likely occur.
- Fluids are diverted away from the mouth, resulting in mouth dryness. More difficulty talking and swallowing are typically experienced under stress.
- Blood flow from the skin is channeled to the heart and muscle tissues. With the diverted blood flow, less blood loss occurs in the event of cuts and nicks. You will exhibit cold and clammy skin, as well as hairs standing on end because of the tightening of the scalp.
- Digestive activity is reduced as it becomes non-essential for the moment.
With modifications associated with the stress response, you will be able to increase your reaction time, enhance your focus, as well as improve your stamina and strength. As a result, you will be able to deal better – whether you wish to fight or flight the stress-causing circumstance.
The fight-or-flight stress responses assists you in the challenges of everyday life. The surge of stress hormones, for instance, can help you focus more on your test or finish that project at work.
Symptoms of Negative Stress
While we have learned that stress can be beneficial, there are several instances when it causes harm to your health, mood, productivity and general well-being. This is what experts call stress overload. The symptoms can be cognitive, physical, and behavioral in nature. The following are some symptoms you can expect from too much negative stress in your life.
1) Cognitive Symptoms
- Frequent worrying
- Racing thoughts
- Bad judgment calls
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor memory/recall
2) Emotional Symptoms
- Sadness and depression
- Loneliness; the desire for isolation
- Overwhelming emotions
- Inability to relax
- Shortness of temper and irritability
3) Physical Symptoms
- Frequent cough and colds
- Nausea and dizziness
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Loss of libido
- Fast heartbeats and chest pain
- Other bodily aches and pains
- Substance abuse (drugs, cigarettes or alcohol)
4) Behavioral Symptoms
- Nervous habits (pacing, nail-biting)
- Forgetting responsibilities
- Too much/ too little sleeping
- Overeating/ under-eating
Stress is usually fleeting. It can span for a few minutes most of the time. This is referred to as acute stress, or the body’s reaction to an immediate danger. In scientific terms, this is called the “fight or flight” response. Any situation can be deemed as a threat; and as such, it is treated as a danger to the individual. Acute stressors usually involve the following:
- Effects of new technology
- Memories of a dangerous event from the past
Once the acute threat has waned, the stress hormones dissipate and return to normal levels. This is what happens when the body enters the relaxation response. Unfortunately, stress persists and continues sometimes – with effects that can be harmful to health. This is known as chronic stress or long-term stress. Such stressors include the following:
- Financial Problems
- Work Pressure
- Relationship Problems
Sadly, chronic stress can lead to a variety of illnesses and conditions, such as:
- Cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure
- Gastrointestinal disorders, including ulcerative colitis, gastritis, GERD and irritable colon
- Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and personality disorders
- Skin and hair disorders, including eczema, psoriasis, acne and hair loss
- Menstrual problems
- Obesity and eating disorders
- Sexual problems, such as premature ejaculation, impotence and loss of sexual desire
How to Avoid Negative Stress and Its Effects
Totally avoiding stress doesn’t seem possible. But avoiding the frequency and gravity of stress could be. Try these.
1) Learn how to better manage your time.
Having too many things on your plate can stress you out. You can work around these stresses if you learn how to manage your time. Prioritize the things you need to do, in order to take the undue pressure from your shoulders.
2) Adopt better coping mechanisms.
Have you tried many coping mechanisms only to no avail? Choosing the right coping mechanism involves trial and error, and doing this can help you discern the best action for a stressful situation. A great coping mechanism includes yoga, meditation, exercise, walking, reading, music, dance, etc.
3) Steer clear of destructive habits.
Just because you can, does not mean that you should. This is especially the case when it comes to alcohol and drugs. The best way to avoid stress is to control drinking and smoking, and totally avoid drugs. You don’t need a muddled mind to deal with stress. Nourish yourself and have adequate sleep. You need a healthy body to ward off stress effectively.
4) Think anew.
Are you a constant worrier? Before you get bummed by stress, try stopping your mind from running negative thoughts. Condition your mind to accept the things that you cannot change.
5) Learn to assert and defend yourself.
Are you easily bullied because of your weak personality? Maybe it is time for you to step up. Learn to say no, especially if you cannot handle the demands being thrown at you. Communicate with people if you think that they are stepping over your boundaries. Remember to do so in a tactful way in order to avoid miscommunication and further stresses.
6) Do not be afraid to ask for help.
Press F1. Call a lifeline. Asking for support from your family and friends does not mean that you are a weak person. Acknowledge your limitations and shortcomings. Before that fateful day when you’d be calling for help, develop a good support system. Make sure that you have someone or a network to call.
How to Overcome Stress
When stress succeeds in creeping in, as it usually does, there are ways to overcome it. The key is to take it by the handle. Remember that you always have a choice between the good and the bad kind of stress. Choosing, though, is not a simple matter. You have to know a great deal about yourself and how you respond to stress.
1) Exercise regularly.
One of the best ways to combat stress is to exercise regularly. A 30-minute regimen such as walking will not only free your mind, it can help you lose the weight you have put on because of stressful situations.
2) Never hesitate to let your feelings known.
Never be afraid to talk about what you are feeling. Express your sentiment with a confidant. Showing your vulnerability can help you purge yourself of the toxic things that hinder you from enjoying your life.
3) Jot down your thoughts.
When your support systems seem so far away, a great way to unbridle your bottled-up stress is to put your thoughts into words. Keeping a journal or a diary where you can jot down the thoughts and emotions that come to you during stressful situations would be a great thing. Most importantly, reflecting on these notes can help you determine the best approaches for stress management.
4) Engage in activities you enjoy.
Stressful situations can make you sad and depressed – so if you want to turn your frown upside down, then the best way to do so is to do something that you enjoy. Engage in your favorite hobbies, or enlist yourself in volunteer work. Doing any of these fun activities will surely keep your mind off the stresses around you.
5) Pamper yourself.
Relaxing your mind and body is one of the best ways to eliminate all of your stresses. Soothing activities such as massage, aromatherapy, tai chi, qi gong and muscle relaxation exercises can calm your nerves – and renew your outlook in life.
6) Focus on the present.
Dwelling on the past can make you sad and stressed. There is no use crying over spilled milk. If you want to shake the tension off your body, then make sure to focus on the here and now. It might not be easy to do but you have to nudge yourself forward. Assess and face your present situation, and focus on what can be done and not on what could have been.
Whatever you may think of this Eastern practice, it works. Many studies as of late have been conducted, and all the results are the same—meditation does a fantastic job of reducing stress. If you are not in a meditative state or do not find yourself being able to dedicate time to train yourself in the art of meditation, there is also Tai Chi and Yoga. Both Tai Chi and Yoga have also been shown to be excellent at reducing stress.
Seeking Professional Help
More often than not, the aforementioned tips can help get your mind off the stress at work and at home. But if all else fails, here’s the last recourse. Professionals can help you deal with your stresses, no matter how complicated they might be. Here are some therapies that you can expect from a counselor or a stress expert:
1) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a hybrid of cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy concentrates on your thoughts and feelings and how they are linked to your behavior. CBT will give you a bird’s eye view of how you handle stress. CBT makes you realize your cognitive processes and how they affect your view of stress. With this treatment method, you will learn new techniques and skills that can help you deal with stress efficiently. Cognitive behavioral therapy can include the likes of mindfulness exercises (such as meditation), journaling, behavioral conditioning (such as using triggers and cues to form or break habits), and a plethora of other methods.
Heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and body temperature are affected by stressful situations. With biofeedback, you can learn how to deal with stress and your body simply by learning how to control these body signals. Biofeedback uses electronic equipment in order to measure bodily function. An example of a biofeedback device is the EmWave2, a device that trains your body to reduce stress by measuring and monitoring your heart rhythm. The device uses “sessions” to train your body to reduce stress by reducing your heart rate when it is beating too fast.
Practiced by doctors, psychologists and counselors, hypnosis is an activity that can help you change the way you react to stress. Once you enter this trance-like state, you will demonstrate better suggestibility and a more focused attention. These are the openings that therapists utilize in stress treatment.
Each person has the ability to withstand or take in a certain amount of stress without buckling down. It is either an innate ability or something he has acquired and learned. That threshold beyond which he breaks down must be increased or further developed. Keep in mind that stressors are everywhere and seldom controllable. Try to change a negative stressor into a positive one. But if you can’t change it, change the way you perceive it. You may not have the power to change many things, but you always have the control over yourself to widen your margin of tolerance for stress and its negative effects.