EVERYONE experiences stress from time to time. Stress is highly subjective; what one person finds stressful could be experienced as a minor hiccup or setback by another. It’s often described as a feeling of being tense, anxious, wound up and overwhelmed.
A little stress can actually be beneficial when it serves as a motivator to accomplish tasks and remain on schedule. It prepares us to manage emergencies and to remain safe. In everyday life, stressful responses can help us rise to meet the challenge at hand. For example, we may hit the brakes hard to avoid an accident, or get ready to flee or defend ourselves in dangerous situations.
Within our comfort zones, stress sharpens our senses and keeps us alert, sharper and focussed especially when preparing for important tasks like exams and work related assignments. It becomes harmful when it’s prolonged and interrupts daily functioning, and negatively impacts on our mental and physical wellbeing.
We experience stress when there is an imbalance between what is expected of us and the resources needed to meet or cope with the expectation. There is a general feeling of being under pressure and fear of failure in managing the situation. Stress results from external stressors (such as work, relationships, finances, loss,) and from internal triggers such as the way we understand, think and process our external situation. It can result from physical illnesses. It can lead to physical illness as well as to some other mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
During stressful times, the body responds by activating the nervous system and releasing cortisol and adrenaline hormones. To enable us to deal with the stress, these hormones trigger a series of physical changes commonly known as the “fight, flee or freeze” responses. Accompanying physical changes include pounding heart, increased breathing, muscle tension and sweating.
When the threat or stressor has been managed, the body normally returns to baseline and these changes disappear as well. However, if the stress is ongoing or chronic and the body is continually in a heightened state, psychological and other physical symptoms may result which can affect our health and general functioning.
- The following can be caused or exacerbated by stress:
- Heart diseases
- Non cardiac chest pain or tightness
- High blood pressure
- Sleep problems
- Weakened immune system making the body more vulnerable to illness
- Headaches and other body aches and pains
- Stiff muscles
- Upset stomach and other digestive problems
- Skin conditions such as eczema
- Poor concentration and forgetfulness
- Irritability, feeling moody or tearful
- Depression and anxiety
Stress, especially if chronic, generally wears people down and affects quality of life. It can literally cause one to age faster as it affects the way the body rejuvenates itself. It’s common for some people who have been under a lot of stress for prolonged periods of time to appear older than their actual age.
It can be intense, overwhelming and lead to disruptions of normal life and struggle to accomplish everyday tasks effectively. Chronic stress is when these pressures and demands seem to go on forever with no foreseeable letting up or solution in sight.
People may respond by withdrawing and isolating, using drugs and alcohol. They may engage in risky behaviours in attempts to cope with these overwhelming feeling; for example, gambling, dangerous driving and accident proneness and eating disorders (both over and under eating). Not only are the risks physical and mental but they can be social as well where by relationships are affected by chronic stress.
How do we manage stress?
The simple solution is to remove the stressor or trigger to the stressful event. For everyday stressors it’s possible. For example, stress resulting from fear of failing an exam, the simple solution would be to study and prepare in order to lessen that feeling. Stress from constant tiredness can be rectified by adequate rest and sleep. Sometimes for our own well-being and health, we need to distance ourselves from toxic and stressful relationships with other people.
However, we all know that removing or eliminating some stressors can be impossible in particular for those stressors are beyond our control. These include loss from death of a loved one, loss of a job, terminal illness, breakdown of a relationship and other catastrophic life events. These require recognising and managing the way we respond to the stressor and taking steps to minimise the impact and learning to let go or adapt to the new normal in healthy ways.
Basic tips for coping with everyday stressors include:
Healthy eating and regular exercise
Eating healthily helps replenish the body of essential nutrients and provides the necessary energy needed to deal with the tasks at hand. Exercise releases endorphins which make us feel good. It also loosens tight muscles. Movement and exercise can also assist with sleep.
Identify your warning signs and triggers
Knowing what stresses you helps you to anticipate and take measures to calm yourself beforehand. This may include removing yourself from a potentially stressful situation before it gets out of hand. For example, if you know you are going to be meeting a person who pushes your buttons you can be aware of your possible responses and minimise being reactive.
Practice deep breathing and relaxation
Learn how to do breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. These help to relieve tension and alleviate the feeling of tightness. Under stressful situations, at times we unconsciously hold our breath or hyperventilate which result in feeling more wound up or feeling out of control. Purposefully choose to do an activity or hobby that relaxes and makes you happy.
Set aside time to worry
I know this may sound odd. However, by setting specific time during the day when you can focus on your worries it gives you a sense of control and allows you to focus on other things as well.
Avoid band aid pick-me-ups such as drinking, binge eating and drugs as primary coping strategies
Although they may help you feel better for a while, in the long run they lead to more serious problems and consequences.
Break your to-do list down into simpler and smaller tasks
Learning to prioritise and tackling tasks that are easier first helps lessen the anxiety, and the feeling of achievement boosts your confidence and feeling of accomplishment. Also this minimises the feeling of being overwhelmed and out of control.
Managing chronic stress
The above strategies can be applied to chronic stress as well. In addition, the following tips may be beneficial in coping with stress resulting from events beyond our control:
Seek medical attention for any physical conditions
Also accessing support via a mental health professional if feeling anxious and depressed is advised. Beginning with a simple general check up from the local doctor is a good place to start.
Surround yourself with people who are supportive and caring
This allows for you to be uplifted and taken care of. Being around people that you trust can provide a safe space to open up and share your thoughts, feelings and fears. Sometimes all that you need is a listening ear not necessarily solutions.
Seek professional counselling to help learn the skills to better cope with your situation
A mental health professional can help you make changes in the way you respond to the stressors in your life. Seeking counselling is not weakness but it’s a sign of strength.
Julie Ngwabi writes from Australia.