A Guide To Understanding Stress
Stress plays a part in our daily lives in big or small ways – positive or negative, but how much do we actually understand stress? By the end of this guide, you will be able to identify what stress symptoms are, the common signs of stress to look out for, and the best ways to monitor and combat stress when pressure begins to mount.
What is stress?
Stress has been described as feeling overwhelmed or under pressure, but more clinically, it can be defined as a demanding situation or event that evokes physiological and behavioural responses in us.
When answering “what is stress?” it is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all. What is considered stressful varies from person to person, as we all have different capabilities, lifestyles, backgrounds and triggers.
For example, someone from a wealthier background might not show signs of stress or panic if they discovered their utility bills were higher than expected, whereas someone who has a smaller budget might.
Types of stress
According to psychologists, stress comes in different forms. Three – to be exact. The three different types of stress are acute, episodic and chronic.
Acute stress is short-term and, out of the three, felt most commonly in our day-to-day. It is sparked by specific events or unexpected situations that make us feel momentarily stressed out, like public speaking or receiving important test results. Once the situation has been overcome, the stress symptoms clear.
Episodic stress is experienced when an individual’s life choices consistently put them in stressful environments or situations that lead to crisis. Work stress is a common example of this, and this could be due to poor management, difficult co-workers or a demanding boss. The constant feeling of being under pressure could be a sign that a person lacks the ability to pragmatically manage arising problems or is an indicator that they are taking on too much and need to make some much needed lifestyle adjustments to help combat stress.
Chronic stress is long-term and stems from sustained periods of heightened emotional turmoil, such as on-going relationship problems, work stress and poverty. Chronic stress is among the most damaging because it puts a constant strain on our nervous systems. When our fight, flight or freeze response is triggered, our nervous systems release what’s often called “stress” hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin to prepare us for any potential threat. Being in a constant state of high stress can completely wear down the body and mind, and result in serious health complications such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and even some cancers. The mental toll chronic stress takes can be just as damaging, and can lead to cases of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and in some instances – suicide.
Signs of stress
A lot of the time you can feel the signs of high cortisol levels in your body when you experience stress symptoms. These common signs of stress arise due to the increased levels of “stress” hormones, and can include:
• Increased heart rate
• Faster breathing
• Muscles tightening
• Higher blood pressure
• Heightened senses
Stress symptoms can be mental as well as physical, such as:
• Low mood
• Change in appetite
• Inability to concentrate
• Digestive problems
• Stomach ulcers
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
• High cholesterol
• Lowered libido
• Post-traumatic stress disorder
Stress depresses our immune system, making us more susceptible to serious health conditions. Additionally, when our stress responses are constantly alerted due to prolonged or chronic stress, other bodily systems deregulate as a result, which is why some of the signs of stress can be so extreme and varied. Fortunately, there are things you can do to combat stress and lower your risk of some of the more serious symptoms.
What causes stress?
As we are all different, what triggers our stress responses can range from losing a job, marital/relationship issues, and separation – to the death of a loved one, poverty, and other traumatic events.
Stress from traumatic events can have a severe lasting-effect and lead to poor mental health and anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Traumatic events that can lead to developing post-traumatic stress disorder can include:
• Being a victim of violence
• Being a victim of abuse
• Being a victim of harassment or bullying
• The death of a loved one
• A near-death experience
• Seeing or hearing something deeply distressing
• Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness
• Childbirth complications
Not all stress symptoms are a result of negative life events or experiences. Sometimes our stress responses are triggered by positive changes like starting a new job, getting engaged or moving into a new home.
How to deal with stress
Whether it’s work stress or trauma from a troubled childhood, the good news is there are effective ways to combat stress, heal from past wounds and reduce the risk of developing serious, long-term physical and mental health issues.
The first step in how to deal with stress is recognising what might be causing it. Once this is identified, you can take the right measures to lessen or eliminate the root cause of what is making you feel stressed out entirely. The more you understand stress, the better you will be at managing it. Stress relief can be achieved by making a few lifestyle changes like establishing and setting up personal boundaries, reversing negative thought patterns, exercising, taking medication and/or going to therapy.
Looking after our mind and bodies is crucial to our overall wellbeing. While we will never be able to fully eliminate stress, we can control how much it impacts us.