Stress is something we all experience from time to time and it can be caused by a whole host of different situations. Some of the most common triggers include relationships, money and work or a huge change in our lives, e.g. a bereavement, moving house, unemployment or divorce. But sometimes, the cause of stress can be something minor like finding it difficult to deal with children or feeling unappreciated at work. In other cases, there may be no identifiable cause.
Not all stress is negative, as research has found that stress, at a moderate level, can actually improve our performance level. Small amounts of stress can also make us more alert, enhancing our ability to do well in certain situations such as public speaking or job interviews. Alternatively, there are some stressful situations that can provide us with a feeling of exhilaration, e.g. when we’re participating in a high-risk sport or activity.
However, good stress is only positive if it’s over a short period of time. Prolonged stress or excessive amounts of it can lead to emotional or physical exhaustion and even illnesses. And, in the most extreme of cases, stress can kill.
The Symptoms of Stress
If you think you may be suffering from stress, there are a number of different symptoms you may have, including behavioural, emotional or physical changes. Below are some of the most common:
How Stress Can Change Your Behaviour
You may start to behave differently when you’re stressed, becoming inflexible, indecisive or withdrawn, for example. You might also find that you’re not sleeping as well as you used to, which could be adding to how tearful and irritable you feel all the time. Your sexual habits may also have changed. Sudden spouts of verbal and physical aggression can be triggered, even if you were mild-mannered before.
How Stress Can Affect Your Emotions
Common feelings you may experience when you’re stressed include depression, frustration, anger, fear and anxiety. Each of these feelings can add to each other, often causing physical symptoms which will make you feel even worse. If you’re extremely anxious, you may even find that you start suffering from stomach disorders, headaches, heart palpitations or giddiness.
A lot of these symptoms can make you feel like you’re suffering from something serious (e.g. cancer or heart disease) because they leave you feeling incredibly unwell. This can result in you feeling even more stressed than you did before.
How Stress Can Affect You Physically
When your body needs to prepare itself for an emergency, it will release chemicals which are often referred to as ‘fight or flight’ hormones. But these can also be released when you start to get stressed. Your blood pressure can become raised due to noradrenaline and adrenaline, which will make you perspire more and will increase your heart rate. They can also reduce your stomach activity and the blood flow to your skin. All of these changes are made to help your body run away or fight danger.
And while these changes may be helpful on a battlefield or in an unexpected situation, they’re not helpful when you’re sat on a bus surrounded by people or you’re trying to get through a mountain of paperwork. You can’t run away and you can’t fight. That’s why you aren’t using up the chemicals that your body has produced to try and protect you. And over time, the changes induced by the chemicals can have a severe impact on your health.
For example, you may start to suffer from indigestion, nausea or headaches. Your breathing may quicken, you may start to perspire more, you may start to experience more aches and pains or you may have palpitations. Over a longer period of time, this can put you at risk of strokes and heart attacks.
The Effect of Stress on Your Body and Immune System
The immune system can be significantly affected by psychological stress. Stress raises CD8 and catecholamine levels, which can suppress your immune system. And because your immune system is suppressed, this can increase your risk of viral infections.
Histamines are also released when you’re stressed, which is a particular worry for asthmatics as these have the potential to trigger bronchoconstriction (where the airways become restricted and you have difficulty breathing). Insulin needs are also altered when stress levels are higher, which increases your risk of developing diabetes, especially if you’re overweight.
Stress ulcers, peptic ulcers and ulcerative colitis can all be induced by stress due to the way it alters the acid concentration of your stomach. And chronic stress can also cause heart attacks and angina due to the onset of atherosclerosis (where plaque builds up in the arteries because of chronic stress levels), especially if your diet has a high-fat content.
These are the most common diseases that are associated with stress but aren’t the only ones. However, they do demonstrate just how fatal stress can be, especially over a long period of time.
Are You Suffering from Stress?
Everyone will suffer from stress in their own way, experiencing different symptoms and feelings. Some people may find the pressure at work enjoyable whilst others may not. But once you feel like you are suffering from stress, it’s important to find out the root cause of it.
Ask yourself what’s changed to cause this stress – has a situation arisen that’s put you under more pressure? What’s changing your behaviour, feelings or body? And then list some things that make you feel stressed.
You can then use three categories to classify your stressors – ongoing problems, major lifestyle changes and accidental hassles:
Ongoing problems include accumulating debt; having problems with a family member, friend or colleague and being in an unstable job or relationship.
Major lifestyle changes include negative and positive events. A negative change may be getting divorced, losing your job or a death in the family. Alternatively, a positive change could be having a baby, starting your own business, graduating from college/university or getting married.
Accidental hassles are those that cause significant stress, even if they’re only temporary. These could include getting a speeding ticket, missing the bus, having a flat tyre or losing your house key.
Once you’ve identified what’s causing your stress, this will help you to start managing it better.
How to Manage Stress
One of the most important things when overcoming stress is to acknowledge that you are stressed and that you need to make changes to your life to prevent these feelings. You need to make a connection between the pressure you’re being put under and the feelings of being ill or tired. And don’t ignore physical warning signs too, such as migraines, headaches, over-tiredness and tense muscles.
If you find that you’re getting upset or angry, try to take some time out, even if it’s just for a few minutes until you calm down. Take a walk around the block or go and get yourself a glass of water until you start to feel like you’re calming down.
Use Relaxation Techniques to Reduce Your Stress
One of the best ways to reduce those anxious feelings caused by stress is to try to relax. Try to relax all of your tense muscles and calm your breathing by taking deep breaths in and out. Take a deep breath and hold this for three seconds before slowing exhaling, continuing this until you start to feel as though you’re calming down. Then, you may feel as though you can carry on with the task you’d started.
Look at What’s Triggering Your Stress
As mentioned previously, there can be a whole host of different things that trigger your stress.
Some of these will have a practical solution and others will get better in time but there are also certain causes that you won’t be able to do anything about. For the latter two, you need to try to learn to let go of these issues because worrying about things you can’t alter or that will get better over time is only going to make you feel worse.
Some of the trigger points may need tackling head on because they may be more complicated. For example, if you’re going through a bad patch in a relationship, you need to talk things over with your partner/friend to try and sort things out.
Change Your Lifestyle
Once you’ve assessed the immediate cause(s) of your stress, try to look at your lifestyle and what may need changing here. Are you doing too much? Could you take a step back from something, handing over certain things to someone else? Be sure to prioritise things so you can reorganise your life whilst still achieving what you want to do. It’s important not to try to do everything at once.
There are a number of ways you can change your lifestyle to prevent stress, including:
Eating a Healthy Diet
Having a balanced diet won’t just help to make you feel better but also reduces the risk of you becoming overweight, which can also lead to the risk of developing other diseases.
Cutting Down on Cigarettes and Alcohol
If you can, try to reduce how much you drink and smoke. Because even though these may seem to relieve your stress momentarily, they could also be making it much, much worse. Due to the damage they can do to your body, they can put you at more risk of physical problems that are caused by stress.
Try to cut down on how much caffeine you’re drinking too because the effects of this on your body can be likened to the feelings you get when you’re anxious or stressed.
Having Regular Exercise
An effective way of relieving stress is exercise. For example, if you’ve had a bad day at work and you’re angry, you may find it beneficial to vent your anger by going on a run or playing a game of tennis with your friend (be sure to take your anger out on the ball, not your friend, though!). Even having a short walk to your local shop can help to reduce how stressed you feel.
Taking Time Out
It’s easy to say, “I don’t have time to relax” but it’s important that you do find the time when you’re feeling stressed. Not taking time out when you need to could mean you have to take time off at a later date due to ill health. Try to find the right balance between the responsibility you have to yourself and the responsibility you have to others. You may also find that relaxation, meditation or hypnosis classes could help you to manage your stress levels much more easily.
Chatting to Friends and Family
They say a problem shared is a problem halved and that’s why you need to talk about your stressors with a member of your family or a friend. Chatting to them about what’s triggered your stress and how you feel may enable you to see things differently, and they may offer you a way out of this stressful situation that you hadn’t thought of before.
Improving Your Communication Skills
If your stress is being caused due to a relationship at home or at work, you may find that listening to the person involved, smiling and expressing your feelings can help you to overcome the situation in no time. Sometimes, it’s easier to admit you are wrong and let things go than holding onto something for a long period of time.
Getting Enough Sleep
When you suffer from stress, your sleep can become one of the things that’s most affected. But to overcome your stress, it’s important that you’re getting enough rest. And if you do need to take sleeping pills, try not to take these for more than two nights.
Injecting Some Fun into Your Life
Enjoying yourself will help you to battle your stresses so try to add some fun to your life by giving yourself rewards and treats for being more positive. It could be something simple such as a walk in the park or a relaxing bath or you may find that getting a new book can help you to switch off and deal with your stress. Then, when you overcome a bigger challenge, you’ll be able to reward yourself with a well-deserved holiday.
Try not to let things get out of hand by being too hard on yourself. We all have bad days and learning to manage the downs with the ups will help you to keep your stress levels at bay.
Seek Professional Help
If you don’t feel as though you can cope with things on your own, you may need to seek professional help. Many people feel reluctant to do this because they feel as though they are failing in some way but you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s important that you seek help as soon as you can so you can start to feel better again.
The first person you should approach is your family doctor. They’ll be able to advise what treatments are available to you and may refer you to someone who can help. Some approaches that have been found to reduce stress include Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There are also some other charities and voluntary organisations (like Mind, for example) that have been established to help people deal with stress.
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