What is stress?
Stress affects everyone differently. It is dependent on the environment you are exposed to, your experiences in life and your genetic makeup, making it a subjective condition. It is your body’s response to a certain situation. Something that is stressful for one person, may not be stressful for another.
Stress is defined as the mental state or emotional tension and strain resulting from a circumstance that is demanding or adverse. Stress is able to put strain on your physical and mental health and may result in your overall behaviour changing because of it.
Your body has a biological response to stressful situations, releasing chemical hormones (Adrenaline, Cortisol and Norepinephrine) that help your body to deal with the situation at hand.
Stress is the body’s psychological reaction to something that is perceived harmful to us, and is also known as the flight-or-fight response (a term coined by Walter Bradford Cannon). This response, also called hyperarousal, is a psychological reaction in response to a seemingly harmful event or a threat to our survival.
From as early as the cavemen era, stress has been a natural response to certain situations. It results in the heart beating faster, the brain working better and improvement in focus. It also results in a sudden burst of energy which enable one to either fight or flee in order to remain safe and alive. This response often kept our early ancestors safe from attacks from predators and other threats to their survival.
This is a good type of stress, one which resulted in the survival of humankind. This kind of stress is intended to only be temporary, and in modern life helps us to avoid accidents, meet deadlines and manage chaotic situations. However, when stress moves from being acute (fight-or-flight) to chronic (prolonged acute stress) it can take a psychological and often physical toll on the body.
Stress is an unavoidable part of our everyday life but prolonged stress can be detrimental to our health.
And so, the management and prevention of it is vital to continued health and well-being. It is difficult to completely eliminate stress from our lives, but it is possible to learn to eliminate unnecessary stress.
The following article looks at stress, its causes, coping with stress and more. It is important to note that this article is written only as a guideline and it not intended as a prognosis or a professional opinion. Consult with your healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and medical opinion.
What happens during a stressful event?
Your body is made to react in certain ways to certain situations. It is built to protect you from danger and potentially harmful situations. As mentioned, this reaction helped to protect our ancestors from predators, and in today’s world, protect us from potential accidents or those wanting to harm us. More so, these situations extend to a huge workload, trying to make ends meet and handling day-to-day life.
On an average day, we face multiple stressful situations and these seemingly minor hassles may be treated as threats to the body. This may result in feeling as though you are constantly under attack which leads to chronic stress.
When your body receives a threat, your hypothalamus – a small area at the base of your brain, sets an alarm off and tells your body to produce certain hormones in order to help you face the attack, this is known as the fight-or-flight response. The alarm, using hormonal and nerve signals, tells your adrenal glands – found at the top of your kidneys, to release hormones, these include adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol.
Here’s what they do:
Adrenaline elevates blood pressure, increases heart rate and boosts your energy supplies. It results in heightened feelings of excitement, strength, energy and alertness. For instance, if you are running a race, adrenaline might give you the strength to push your body further in order to win it.
There are stories of mothers lifting small cars off of their children, soldiers carrying people double their weight out of danger and other stories just like them all of which can be attributed to the release of this hormone. Adrenaline is able to make our bodies do phenomenal and extraordinary things.
Similar to adrenaline, it is also released from the adrenal glands. When you are stressed in a situation, you tend to feel more awake, more energised and more focused. This hormone aids in creating that feeling as it shifts the blood away from areas where it is not as crucial, like the skin, and towards more needed areas like muscles – enabling you to run faster or lift heavier.
Depending on the level of stress experienced, as well as how you handle stress personally, the time to return the body to its resting state is anywhere between 30 minutes and a couple of days.
Cortisol is the primary hormone of stress, it increases glucose levels in the bloodstream whilst improving your brain’s use of glucose and increasing the availability of substances that aid in repairing tissues. It kerbs the functions of the body that will not be needed for the fight-or-flight situation. It does this by altering the immune system response and suppressing the digestive system, growth processes and the reproductive system as it maintains blood pressure and fluid balance.
This natural alarm system is also able to communicate to the controlling regions of the brain relating to mood, fear and motivation.
It is clear to see that your body is rather remarkable in its adaptability to our surroundings and situations. We can also start to understand that when severe stress is experienced on a prolonged basis, it can affect the body, it’s digestive system, growth and more rather significantly.
These effects occur when a stressful situation lasts longer than it should and the body continues to release cortisol. The result of chronically elevated cortisol levels leads to serious conditions and issues. Too much of the hormone can result in the immune system being suppressed, high blood pressure and sugar levels, skin problems such as acne and even obesity.
What are the types of stress?
Acute stress refers to your body’s immediate response to an event, challenge or demand. It is also known as shock, referring to the fight-or-flight response. This results in a biological reaction to cope with the surrounding environmental pressure and can assist in being able to miss a car accident through heightened reflexes, study for an exam or even write one. Acute stress is not always the result of negative stress, it can also refer to the rush you get with riding a roller coaster or watching a scary movie.
This type of stress in isolated episodes does not normally result in prolonged adverse health effects. In some cases, acute stress can actually be good for the body in helping it and the brain to practice in developing the best possible response to stressful situations that may happen in the future.
When acute stress is severe, however, for example, suffering from a violent crime or a life-threatening situation, it can lead to psychological problems such as acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Acute stress disorder is determined by the development of a severe psychological issue, such an anxiety, that occurs within a month of exposure to an extremely stressful or traumatic situation.
In response to the stressor (the stressful event), you may start to develop dissociative symptoms. These refer to disruptions in memory, identity, perception and awareness. Dissociation means to mentally disconnect from one’s emotions, memories and even thoughts and sense of identity.
When severe acute stress is experienced, it is best to seek professional advice and assistance.
Chronic stress is the result of unresolved acute stress. When acute stress starts to increase or lasts over a prolonged period of time, it turns into chronic stress. Once a threat or situation has passed, the body normally returns to normal. As the hormone levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to a healthy level, baseline level (meaning their initial level).
However, when stressors (the triggers of stress) are constantly present, your body may feel as though it is constantly under attack. Thus, the fight-or-flight response remains. This results in your body being over-exposed to cortisol and other stress hormones that are able to disrupt other body processes, putting you at risk of a number of health conditions, these can include:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep apnea
- Weight gain
- Skin problems
- Gastrointestinal problems
Should you be experiencing any of these symptoms, have witnessed a stressful or traumatic event or are experiencing a high level of stress, consult with your doctor for treatment and the development of coping mechanisms to manage stress.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress is able to affect various aspects of life. No part of our body is immune to stress.
Your symptoms can go unnoticed or even be the result of another medical condition, therefore it is advised to consult with your doctor should you experience any of the following symptoms, particularly if you are experiencing more than one over a prolonged period of time. There are a variety of symptoms of stress, grouped accordingly:
- Lack of energy
- Constipation, diarrhoea, nausea
- Weight gain
- Tense muscles
- Rapid heartbeat that doesn’t return to normal
- Sleep apnea
- Constant infections and flu
- Loss of libido
- Feeling anxious and nervous, shaking
- Difficulty in swallowing, dry mouth
- Grinding teeth and clenched jaw
- Easily frustrated and moody
- Feeling overwhelmed, needing to take control or a loss of control
- Finding it hard to relax
- Low self-esteem
- Avoiding social interactions with others
- Loss or increase in appetite
- Avoiding duties and responsibilities
- Increased intake of drugs (alcohol and cigarettes)
- Nervous behaviour such as nail biting, pacing and fidgeting
- Inability to concentrate
- Constantly worried
- Lack of judgement
- Pessimism - only seeing the negative side
How to cope with stress naturally
Some people handle stressful events with ease, whilst others have a hard time. For example, someone with a fear of flying may just feel slightly anxious before getting on a plane.
Another person with the same fear might experience a debilitating form of anxiety, possibly in the form of a panic attack and avoid airports and flying entirely. No matter what your stress triggers, there are processes that can be followed to help you to cope with stress more effectively, which we discuss below. However, this is merely a guideline. Should you be experiencing severe stress, it is advised that you consult with your doctor or mental healthcare professional.
Identify your stressors
Although challenging at times, it is important to try and identify your stressors. Start to think about what causes the most amount of stress for you. This could be a person, situation or task. Try to pick up on the patterns of your stress.
Try to change your stressors
Some stress cannot be avoided, but it can be managed. If the stress is within your control, try to find ways to manage it correctly. If traffic stresses you, try listening to an e-book whilst driving or experimenting with route and time changes.
It starts with changing small things that in turn can be contributing to a great deal of stress.
Set your own limits
Sometimes we take on more than we can handle in life, and before you know it you are overwhelmed with work and responsibilities. It is important to learn to say “no” in order to improve your own mental health. It is sometimes difficult to turn people down or disappoint them, but in not overwhelming yourself you will be happier and less stressed, resulting in others in your life being happier too. You need to be realistic about your capabilities.
Organise your life
If you find yourself being overwhelmed with tasks, set deadlines and make lists prioritising items of importance. Complete the items one at a time. You will find yourself working through the list in no time.
Ask for help
Talk to people about your stress. Tell your boss about what is on your plate and what you are currently working on. Speak to friends and family about your situation as they may be able to offer guidance or be able to identify your stressors and possibly help in stopping them. Consult with your doctor on professional help should you feel you require it.
Be healthy and active
Exercising and keeping active will help to reduce the stress and frustration in your life. It is good for your physical and mental health and can aid in relieving built-up daily frustrations. The release of natural endorphins during exercise are basically natural pain killers for your brain. Regular exercise, even if it is just walking 30 minutes a day, will help in boosting your confidence, improve your sleep and help you deal with stress.
There are also certain practices that can help relieve the symptoms of stress:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Tai chi
Taking up a new hobby also aids in relaxing the mind and gives you something positive to work towards or focus on. Whether it be building model aeroplanes or even training to run a race. Try to give your mind and body things to work towards in a way that doesn’t induce performance anxiety and further stress.
Speak to a dietitian about a healthy eating plan, this will also help in decreasing your stress levels as you will have more energy and feel healthier.
It is best to surround yourself with positive thoughts. When you begin to notice your stress levels rising, watch a funny video, go for a quick walk, listen to music or talk to someone who makes you laugh.
Professional help for coping with stress
If lifestyle and health factors are unable to treat your stress levels, it is best to ask your doctor to refer you to a recommended mental health professional who specialises in treating anxiety and stress.
Talk to a therapist, life coach or psychologist for professional help and assistance. These people are trained to assist you in learning coping techniques suited to your particular type of stress and your lifestyle.
There are a variety of services that these professionals can provide you with:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy or talk therapy– allows you to talk about everything that is an issue in your life. The medical professional may ask questions that get to the cause of the stressor. This is known as talk therapy. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) allows you to change the way you think about and act towards certain stressors, getting you to understand your stressor in order to change your response.
- Biofeedback– is able to measure your body’s response to stress, monitoring your heart rate, breathing, brain waves and muscle tension in real time. This then allows you to employ certain breathing or coping techniques to see which one reacts best with the stress responses in question.
Being able to manage episodes of acute and chronic stress allows you to reduce your risks of stress-related diseases and illnesses. Lifestyle and professional treatments can both be effective should you commit yourself and your time to them – it will be worth it in the end.
It is best to handle your stress before it can develop into a condition that is not as easy to manage. Speak to your doctor about dealing with stress.
Some more questions you might have about stress
Can stress make me sick?
Stress is known to suppress the immune system. It does this because, in a stressful situation, the immune system might not be deemed an important function of the body. If your body is constantly under stress, known as chronic stress, your immune system may constantly be down and prone to infections. As well as being vulnerable to illnesses and diseases, the side effects of stress alone may also be similar to those of a common cold. These can include feeling fatigued, having a headache and feeling weak and groggy.
Can stress cause chest pain?
Stress can result in anxiety, which in turn may cause chest pain. A symptom of anxiety is often hyperventilation, this causes muscle contractions to bring excess air into the lungs and also results in the contraction of blood vessels, which can result in severe chest pain.
Heart problems can also be the result of stress and the cause of chest pain. Consult with your doctor should you be experiencing severe or prolonged chest pain.
Why do people react differently to stress?
There are certain factors that determine the way that you react to stress. These being:
- Genetics – there are specific genes that control the levels of stress in the body, sometimes needing to prepare the body for fight-or-flight. Should your body overreact or underreact to stress, it can often stem from the small differences in these genes.
- Life experiences – some people have been exposed to more traumatic cases of acute stress than others. Childhood abuse, witnessing a death, being the victim of a violent crime, or being employed as a police officer, fireman or member of the military are some situational and professional instances that leave people particularly vulnerable to stress.