What is stress actually?
Stress is a perfectly normal psychological reaction to overly demanding tasks, tension or uncertainty. Generally, we all experience it on various occasions in our fast-paced routine. It is triggered by the assumption that a situation might not develop the way we are hoping. Our minds perceive this as a threat and so the body reacts the way it would in the face of danger. This reaction is meant to keep us alert and help us deal with the problem. Ideally, we would remain motivated and make rational decisions. However, continuous exposure to stressful factors every single day inevitably has a negative impact on our nervous system. In this article, we are going to discuss stress in its negative definition as a risk for our mental well-being. We are going to go into detail about what happens to us when we are under too much stress. Finally, we are going to suggest management techniques to cope with excessive tension.
What causes stress
Let us begin by establishing the causes of stress. As we said, there are biological mechanisms that kick in when our mind registers a threat. As a result, adrenaline is released. This hormone increases the heart rate, so that blood can reach your muscles. Blood pressure rises and your breathing quickens so that you inhale more oxygen to send it to the brain. The grand goal here is to sharpen your senses so you can focus and undertake the most efficient measures to deal with the threat. All of this sounds perfectly rational and relates to self-preservation. Nevertheless, such a rush is designed to help us in a particular situation and we are not supposed to live with high adrenaline levels. These are dangerous because they cause high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease. There is another hormone, cortisol, released along with adrenaline. Cortisol suppresses certain bodily functions that seem unimportant in stressful situations and increases glucose levels in your blood. Similarly to adrenaline, cortisol levels are supposed to rise and then drop when we are no longer in immediate danger. Constant pressure means that cortisol levels remain high, altering immune responses, reproductive functions, and metabolism.
Types of stress
Science recognizes three basic types of stress, viz. acute, episodic acute and chronic. Let us discuss them separately:
- Acute stress
This is the type of stress that we usually experience and it is natural. It is literally our response to a particular challenge, which we have not faced before. As such, acute stress does cause negative thoughts and feelings but they tend to fade away shortly after the stressful episode. This type is related to specific trouble that is resolved shortly. In fact, many people enjoy this kind of emotional state and this is why they engage in extreme sports or watch horror movies. Nevertheless, in the case of near-death experiences or trauma, which also cause acute stress, there might be long-term consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Episodic acute stress
This type involves constant exposure to stressors. It is basically determined by repeated episodes of acute stress, which disrupt our daily life. This pertains to people who feel they have too many responsibilities or their life is too demanding. Not only does episodic acute stress have a negative impact on our health, but often it also pushes us towards unhealthy coping mechanisms. These might include substance abuse, overeating, compulsive shopping, etc. Living under stressful circumstances can, therefore, have a landslide effect that impacts both our mental and physical well-being and also causes personal, social and professional trouble.
- Chronic stress
Chronic stress stems from us living in constant worry or distress. It involves circumstances that we cannot control and therefore feel forced into. Domestic abuse, financial struggles, war, serious illness, and discrimination are among the major causes of chronic stress. Unlike the case with acute stress, here the person feels trapped in the situation. This constant pressure on the nervous system might lead to suicidal thoughts, violence, anxiety disorders or physical health issues.
Stress has a serious impact on both our physical and emotional well-being. Some people deal with it silently, while others exhibit particular symptoms and behavioral patterns.
Emotional and cognitive symptoms of stress include:
- Becoming restless and anxious
- Being highly irritable
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Forgetfulness and poor concentration
Common physical symptoms of stress are:
- Inexplicable fatigue
- Troubled sleep
- Acne, muscle pains, and frequent illness
- A decrease in sex drive
- Diarrhea, nausea, constipation or simply upset stomach
Very often, there is a combination of symptoms from both categories that add up to an altered routine or unusual behavior. As we already established, stress makes us perceive particular events as dangerous. Therefore, our reactions might be altered even in a familiar situation. We might feel overwhelmed, which could render us unable to carry out simple tasks. In this case, many people also have symptoms of depression and might opt for willful alienation in an attempt to distance themselves from sources of stress. Alternatively, one might also become so agitated that they would resort to physical or verbal violence towards people around them.
Stress in the workplace
We can divide workplace stress into two categories. The first one is when the workload is unbearable, which leaves us exhausted. Sometimes, we are expected to complete too many tasks is not enough time. This puts tremendous pressure on us and usually has two possible outcomes. We either work extra hours and get the job done but fail to get adequate rest or we fail to deliver, which leads to disappointment. Job-related stress can also stem from a fear of losing our job or a constant dissatisfaction with working conditions. This would be, for instance, if we believe we do not get paid enough or we do not get paid on time. Sometimes, there is a combination of both discontent and overworking. For example, if our company is in the middle of a lay-off campaign, there might be both a staff shortage, forcing us to take up extra work and fear for our job. Work is a pivotal factor in a contemporary person’s routine. Therefore, being stressed out jobwise does inevitably impact other aspects of our life.
When we established the mechanisms of stress, we talked about two of the hormones that are released during a stressful incident. Indeed, adrenaline suppresses some of our needs or functions, among which is eating. When there is a threat, we do not think about food; we think about a possible solution. But if stress does not go away and we remain under significant tension, this rule does not apply. Cortisol, the second hormone we discussed, amps up an appetite. To make matters worse, we tend to crave unhealthy snacks. Since this is not physical hunger, we do not really need this food on a biological level. Therefore, although it might temporarily make us feel better, it could also result in guilt or self-loathing because of overindulgence.
When we think of symptoms, we generally associate stress with headaches. The medical term for this complaint is a tension headache. It can be mild to moderate and it is most commonly concentrated in the forehead but some people report pain at the back of the head as well. You will know a tension headache by the squeeze-like pressure around your head. The discomfort might also radiate towards the neck or shoulders. In their intense forms, stress headaches might resemble migraines in that they make you sensitive to bright light and loud noises. However, migraines usually involve nausea and visual aura.
Stress versus anxiety
Stress can trigger anxiety. The former is a discrete response to perceived danger and we bounce back from it when the problem is dealt with. The symptoms of the latter, on the other hand, do not simply subside on their own. Anxiety can be a long-term illness that involves constant or unwarranted worry. Stress and generalized anxiety disorder have a series of symptoms in common. These include but are not limited to irritability, troubled sleep, pacing heart and fatigue. These two conditions might coexist or occur on their own. They can both seriously interfere with our daily routine and disturb our personal and professional relationships.
Stress management and relief
Stressors are highly individual and thus the way we handle stress is also different. If tension is part of your daily life, you need to come up with a strategy to cope with it. There are many techniques you can try but they all gravitate towards self-care and self-preservation. Pressure, excessive workload and personal problems often cause us to compromise our individual needs. Therefore, the first step should be establishing a healthy routine and trying to adhere to it. Here is where you should start:
- Get enough rest
Try to rearrange your schedule so that you get at least 7 hours of sleep every day. This will allow you to recharge efficiently. Overwork and exhaustion would further impact your immune system and combined with stress could make you susceptible to disease.
- Eat healthily
Come up with a meal schedule. This way you will make sure you do not skip meals. It will also prevent you from sporadic episodes of emotional eating. When you keep track of what you eat, you are less likely to go for junk food. Prepare healthy power snacks for the moments when you really need them.
- Stay active
Regular exercise is always a good idea. This is actually the healthiest option to unwind. Moreover, sports teach discipline, which will help you manage to stick to your routine.
Do not cut out friends and family. Communication with people who appreciate you will contribute to your self-appreciation. You can also choose to talk about your problems and hear a different perspective on possible solutions.
- Curb caffeine, nicotine and alcohol use
Try to steer clear of coffee, cigarettes and alcoholic drinks in excessive quantities. An occasional drink or the regular morning coffee might do no harm. Nevertheless, bear in mind that these affect the nervous system. So, immoderate intake is likely to prevent you from staying on top of the situation.
Final thoughts on stress
While stress is a survival mechanism, which helps us in the face of danger, overexposure to it is definitely harmful. Although we are all familiar with its common symptoms, we tend to ignore the signs and become absorbed into situations that make us uneasy and tense. Unfortunately, sometimes we cannot escape the troubling circumstances that put pressure on our minds, bodies, and emotions. It is important to take care of ourselves even when we feel swamped. We might feel we are making a compromise in the name of professional development or someone else’s well-being. However, the truth is that prolonged periods of stressful living can have a negative effect on our health, jobs, relationships and personal growth. What we can do about it is to find a wholesome approach and set out a routine, based on individual coping mechanisms to help us deal with stress.