Stress is a part of living. There are all kinds of stressors and all manner of reactions to them. Learning to manage our response to them is key to living a healthy life.
Causes of Stress
Simply stated, stress describes the many demands and pressures that we all experience, to some degree, each day. These demands are physical, mental, emotional, or even chemical in nature. The word "stress" encompasses both the stressful situation, known as the stressor, and the symptoms you experience under stress, your stress response.
The problem with stress is that it activates your sympathetic nervous system, stimulating the release of stress hormones throughout your body. These hormones give you super energy and cause other changes in the body such as the "fight or flight" response.
The "fight or flight" response makes your heart beat faster. You might feel very nervous, making it difficult to breathe. Short term, the "fight or flight" response causes changes that allow you to handle sudden stressful events. When you face fear -- or even recall a stressful or frightening event from the past -- the resulting hormonal changes super-charge your body to a state of high arousal. This prepares you for action.
But long-term stress can be particularly difficult. When stress hormones stay elevated over time, there is a gradual and steady stream of harmful changes to the body. Long-term stress can suppress the immune system, which may lead to the development of diseases.
Stress can be positive or negative, depending on the situation. Positive stressors (called eustress) may include an upcoming wedding, the holidays, or pregnancy. On the other hand, negative stress (called distress) results in the full-blown stress response. If continuous, negative stress can lead to loss of productivity, health problems, and exhaustion.
What Are the Symptoms of Stress?
Stress symptoms vary greatly from one person to the next, but the most universal sign of stress is a feeling of being pressured or overwhelmed. Other symptoms include:
- Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, chest pains, nausea, and diarrhea, and a sensation of numbness or tingling in your hands, arms, and face.)
- Problems getting along with family members, friends, and teachers.
- Changes in behavior at home (short temper, unexplained anger, crying for no reason).
- Regression -- behavior that is not age-appropriate.
- Dysfunctional sleep patterns, including nightmares, too little sleep, difficulty falling asleep, or even oversleeping.
- Communication difficulty or personality changes, such as becoming withdrawn or requiring much more attention than usual.
If you are experiencing a few of these symptoms, chances are that your level of stress is high.
Note: Get immediate medical help for any chest pain or for any numbness, tingling or weakness in the arms or legs. Don't assume that it is being caused by stress.
Tips for Managing Stress
Now that you understand more about stress and the symptoms, try the following these 6 tips to unwind, de-stress, and get back in control of your emotional state:
- Identify the sources of stress. Try to figure out what's causing your stress symptoms. Maybe you are overextended (too many commitments) and feel fatigued and irritable. Once you identify the sources of stress, try to minimize these as much as possible.
- Talk it out. Talk to a friend, family member, or therapist if your stress level is too high. Getting your feelings out without others judging you is crucial to good mental health.
- Take time out. Before you reach your breaking point, take time out for solitude. Take time to nurture yourself, away from the cares and responsibilities of the world. Find time for inner strength and emotional healing.
- Set limits. Never hesitate to say "no" before you take on too many commitments. Especially if you are balancing work and family, it's important to prioritize. Saying "no" can help bring your stress to a manageable level and give you more control over your life.
- Try exhaling. Breathing can measure and alter your psychological state, making a stressful moment increase or diminish in intensity. Often, people who are anxious or upset take shallow breaths and unconsciously hold them. By paying attention to your breathing, particularly exhaling during tense moments, you will feel more relaxed. Buy a bottle of inexpensive bubbles (in the toy section at most stores), and use it to learn how to exhale slowly. Breathing from your abdomen, blow through the bubble blower with a steady stream of breath. If you blow too hard or too softly, you won't get any bubbles. But smooth, steady breaths will produce a nice flow of bubbles. Use this breathing technique (without the bubbles) when you are feeling stressed.
- Exercise daily.Exercise is thought to increase the secretion of endorphins, naturally produced substances in the brain that induce feelings of peacefulness. Many studies show that exercise, along with the boosted endorphin levels, really does increase confidence and self-esteem and reduce tension. Exercise also acts as a displacement defense mechanism for those who are "stressed out." What does that mean? If you've ever walked for several miles, you know how hard it is to think of your problems when your mind is focused on walking.
How Can Stress Affect Your Health?
The problem with stress is that it's cumulative. In other words, if you don't have a healthy way of responding to stress or counterbalancing the "fight or flight" response, constant exposure to stress hormones overloads the body.
Changes in levels of hormones produced by daily stress can hurt your health. When stress levels increase, it results in an overproduction of stress hormones that weaken the immune system. This can lead to physical and psychological problems.
Chronic, or long-term, stress often results in high anxiety, insomnia, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and can even lead to dependency on drugs and alcohol (a self-medication solution that makes an already bad problem worse). Some studies show that the hormones associated with chronic stress are linked to increased fat in the abdomen. That, in turn, increases the risk of chronic and serious illness such as diabetes.
When Should I Seek Help for Stress?
When stress interrupts your life, causing sleep problems or making you feel anxious and out of control, talk with your primary health care professional. They might recommend a professional therapist who can offer support and give you some practical lifestyle tips in how to manage stress without letting it take over your life