Brief episodes of stress can raise our energy levels and improve performance. But high levels of stress on a regular basis can damage our physical and mental health and lead to life-threatening diseases.
What is stress?
Stress is something we all encounter at some time in our lives, no matter what our circumstances. It is an unavoidable part of being alive. When we are faced with change, or threatened or challenged in any way, we come under stress. How we respond varies from person to person. A situation that one person finds intolerable may be stimulating and exciting to another. Too little stimulation, resulting in boredom, can also cause problems, which is why some people may feel more stressed after they have retired from work than when they were doing a highly demanding job.
Stress affects us not only mentally but can bring about physical changes too. In fact, our bodies’ response to stress clearly illustrates the way in which our mental health can be directly linked to physical problems.
Animals respond to danger by turning to face the fight or fleeing. This is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. Human beings share this automatic bodily reaction, and we respond to emotional stress as if it were a physical threat. You may only be having an argument with a colleague at work, but you are physically ready for a life-or-death struggle with a lion. Your muscles grow tense, ready for action, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, you breathe faster and sweat more, and your mouth becomes dry. These physical reactions are caused by the release of adrenaline and other hormones into the bloodstream.
The reason why different people react differently to stress is because the intensity of the hormone response varies from person to person, according to lifestyle and genetic make-up. Your personality affects how stressful you judge a situation to be and how you deal with it. A troubled childhood may make you more vulnerable to stress, while being in a supportive relationship or family situation is thought to give some protection from stress.
Experiencing a certain amount of stress can result in a surge of energy that will help you to achieve your goals in life. Without it, you may not be alert enough to perform well or to make appropriate changes should any difficulties or obstacles arise.
However, problems tend to occur when you are constantly reacting to stressful situations without taking, or feeling you are able to take, any action to counter their effects. When someone is under too much stress for too long, it can threaten their health and well-being. The resulting continual rise in levels of adrenaline can lead to the development of certain illnesses. These may be relatively minor such as insomnia, backache or headaches, but stress has also been identified as a contributory factor in several potentially life-threatening conditions, including high blood pressure and heart disease.
Some people have a good awareness of their stress levels – even if they succumb to stress easily, they know how to recognize its symptoms and to deal with them effectively – while others fail to recognize their condition or try to cope by ignoring it. It is common for people affected by stress to turn to alcohol, cigarettes, tranquillizers or other drugs as a way of dealing with the problem. But such responses can eventually cause physical, emotional and behavioural problems, which can also affect their health and peace of mind. These problems can have an impact on relationships at home and in the workplace.
Who is at risk for stress?
In modern life, stress is most likely to be caused by worries concerning your job, finances, health, personal life or surroundings that make you feel under constant pressure. Generally speaking, stress arises from events that create a sense of anxiety, uncertainty or loss. In addition, a feeling of being out of control frequently accompanies such events. If you feel in control of your life, you will often still function well despite being subjected to a constant flow of highly demanding situations.
Symptoms of stress
Stress shows itself in various ways. If you are under stress, you may notice a number of the following physical, emotional or behavioural signs.
- Breathlessness or palpitations.
- Muscle cramps, aches or spasms.
- Constipation or diarrhea.
- Headaches, migraines or backache.
- Skin problems such as eczema or acne.
- Tiredness or insomnia.
- Panic attacks.
- Frequent colds.
- Irritability or impatience.
- Anxiety and fear.
- Anger or aggression.
- Mood swings.
- Inability to express or feel emotion.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Problems making decisions.
- Eating, smoking or drinking more.
- Emotional outbursts.
- Never finishing anything.
- Losing sense of humour.
- Withdrawing from social activities.
Treatment for stress
The key to managing stress is to know your personal tolerance for stressful situations and to try to live within these limits. You can keep stress under control if you learn to recognize the signs of it in yourself and take action to counteract it. There is plenty you can do to deal with stress or reduce the stress in your life. But you should always remember that lasting change will not come overnight. It will take persistence. It may even be necessary to make big changes in your lifestyle in order to reduce your stress levels.
The best stress treatments are those that help you to manage stress yourself, which involve specific relaxation exercises that you can use when you are alone. You will need to seek professional help for other treatments, such as medication, talking therapy or complementary therapies. Your first point of contact should be your doctor, who may treat you personally or refer you to a counsellor or other practitioner.
Medications for stress
Some doctors prescribe tranquillizers, such as Valium, for stress and anxiety. These drugs will not help you to deal with the cause of your stress, but they can help you to get through a crisis. Since tranquillizers are addictive, you should be given a low dose for a few days only.
Active relaxation therapy. One type of relaxation therapy involves a combination of controlled deep breathing and muscle relaxation, often using progressive muscle relaxation – in which you tense and release muscles.
Meditation. Most relaxation involves some form of meditation – where the mind and body are still and you take ‘time out’ from your surroundings. It involves sitting in a comfortable position, with closed eyes, and steering your attention away from your racing thoughts. Staring at a candle flame, visualizing a peaceful place, concentrating on a symbol or repeating a particular sound (mantra) may help to focus your attention. The aim is to reach a state of ‘being’ with no movement or sensation.
Meditation can change the heart rate and breathing, helping to reduce stress. As thoughts slow down, tension in the body drops and feelings of calm, peace and detachment can fill the mind and the body.
It is possible to learn meditation from a book or tape, or from a teacher. But, if full meditation is not for you, then 10–20 minutes each day of quiet reflection may help to alleviate your stress levels. You could use the time to listen to music and try to think of pleasant things – or of nothing at all.
Exercise. Exercise helps to release physical tension and the mental effects of stress. It uses up the adrenaline and other hormones that the body produces under stress, and relaxes the muscles. It improves strength, stamina and resilience, and heart and blood circulation also benefit. For some people, an exercise session is an ideal way to throw themselves into an activity and forget about whatever is troubling them. For other people, a run or swim might provide an opportunity to focus on and resolve a problem.
Physical activity also makes you feel better. This is because it releases mood-improving chemicals, known as endorphins, into your bloodstream. These can raise your level of self-esteem, reduce any feelings of anxiety or depression, and help you to sleep better. An aerobic exercise, such as walking, cycling or swimming, performed for 20–30 minutes three times a week, is a good antidote to stress. Yoga is another exercise option, and one that many people turn to for stress relief. It is a workout for the body and mind that can be used safely by most people.
But any activity is helpful. You do not have to take up a competitive sport; simply become more active as part of your daily routine. Try walking to the store rather than driving there; use the stairs rather than the elevator; take a walk during your lunch break; get off the bus a few stops before home and walk the rest of the way. But always remember to build up your activity gradually: too much too quickly could make you feel even more stressed.
Talking things over. Talking about your feelings to your friends and family is important when you are under stress. But if you want to get to the bottom of recurring problems, such as failed relationships, or if you simply want to understand your situation better, it may be helpful to see a qualified counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist.
Alternative Therapies for Stress
Massage can help to relax your body and give you a feeling of emotional well-being. It offers relief from stress, anxiety and headaches, with special benefits for alleviating tension in the neck, back and shoulders. You can visit a massage therapist for a full massage. Alternatively, you can perform a home massage: lie down, close your eyes gently and massage your face and head for about 15 minutes. This will help to relieve a headache or just make you feel better after a stressful day.
Aromatherapy massage (with essential oils) or reflexology (foot massage) can also help you to relax. Aromatherapy is also ideal for self-help treatment – add a few drops of a relaxing oil such as lavender to a warm bath or use it in a burner to scent a room. The herbal remedies valerian and passiflora are included in many over-the-counter stress treatments because they have sedative properties.
The Alexander technique is helpful too, especially for stress-related conditions such as anxiety, breathing disorders and back, neck and joint pain.
Adapted from Family Medical Adviser, Reader's Digest