Work. Exams. Deadlines. Kids. Bills. In-laws… Life is stressful.
The word “stress” is extremely loaded. We know that stress is unhealthy and unpleasant, and can have significant effects on the body. But stress is also necessary. Imagine a rubber band. If you pull it too far and too hard, it will snap. But if you don’t pull it at all, it is floppy and useless. It’s the same with people. Stress is what happens when we push ourselves harder when we aim for a goal and work towards it.
After all, exercise stresses the body, and exercise is healthy! On the other hand, there is such a thing as too much stress, and when it becomes severe or chronic, it can be incredibly debilitating. Perhaps instead of freaking out about stress, it’s time to examine the subject properly and make sure we are stressed in a good way. That begins by defining what stress actually is.
What is stress?
Stress is any adversity or challenge a person is faced with, whether it be physical, mental, emotional, or even spiritual. A certain amount of stress is inevitable and even desirable. For example, if you have an upcoming exam, but you are not at all stressed by it, you might not bother studying. And that’s not good. However, stress is a problem when it becomes overwhelming, and the individual feels that they can’t cope.
Too much stress may lead to physical effects and symptoms, as well as impacting one’s mental health, daily functioning, and relationships. This is when it becomes important to practice techniques for stress management so that the stress can be brought back down to normal and manageable levels.
What are the symptoms of stress:
A little bit of stress here and there is normal and our bodies are well-equipped to handle it. But when stress becomes extreme or chronic, it can negatively affect the body’s systems and cause a range of common stress symptoms. These include:
Decreased energy and insomnia
During periods of stress, people often complain of a nagging fatigue or a kind of malaise that prevents them from being able to function properly and enjoy life. Paradoxically, while stress can make you very tired, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Stress-induced insomnia is believed to affect up to 20% of people each year.
Changes in libido
Stress triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response, and this results in the release of stress-related hormones – all of which cause havoc to one’s sex drive. Stress is a leading cause of low libido and sexual dysfunction. Even mild stress can be a passion killer, and make one feel that they are just not in the mood.
Emotional stress places a lot of physical stress on the body. The heart and respiratory system become more reactive, hormone levels change, and the immune system struggles under all this extra pressure.
This can lead to frequent sicknesses, such as colds and flu, and increased susceptibility to seasonal viruses. In fact, chronic stress can even cause ‘psychogenic fever’, which is a low-grade fever between 99 and 100 degrees F.
The link between stress and pain is very strong. When a person is under prolonged stress, then they often suffer from chronic pain as well. Stress and pain feed off each other, creating a negative spiral effect. The more stressed a person feels, the more pain they experience, which adds to their stress, causing the pain to become even worse, and on it goes.
The digestive system is complex and sensitive and it is well known that stress causes all kinds of stomach problems. When a person is nervous, they often have the sensation of ‘butterflies’ in the tummy. Chronic stress can even lead to debilitating digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation or acid reflux.
Appetite changes and weight gain
In the short term, stress suppresses the appetite. This is due to the hormones released in the “fight or flight” response that takes the focus away from eating and put all the body’s energy into coping with the stress at hand. However, chronic stress has the opposite effect.
When a person is stressed over a long period of time, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol, which causes an increase in appetite and “stress binging”. In fact, research has demonstrated a strong link between stress, overeating and weight gain.
Heart rate is a powerful indicator of stress level. When a person is stressed, their heartbeat speeds up and blood pressure rises. This is due to the same “fight or flight” response that causes many other stress-related symptoms.
The body is basically priming itself to handle the perceived stress, so the heart works faster to pump blood throughout the body. If your heart is beating rapidly, and you are not exerting yourself physically, you can be pretty sure you are under some kind of stress.
The Common Causes of Stress
Life is full of problems and challenges, so it is also full of stress. Some stress is normal and healthy. Acute stress during extraordinary circumstances, such as job loss or divorce, is also a normal response.
Stress is subjective, and everyone experiences it and relates to it differently. Here are some of the most common causes of stress that most people will experience during their lives.
- Relationships: Relationship difficulties, whether between romantic partners, parents, children, siblings, or friends, are all common and everyday sources of stress.
- Work: Stress in the workplace is extremely common and can lead to work absence, hampered performance, or even the decision to resign. In the US, 25% of people say that work is their top source of stress!
- Financial stress: If there is one thing that most people can agree on, it’s that money is very stressful. Bills to pay, mouths to feed, and a mortgage to cover are all extremely stressful on a day-to-day basis. In fact, 73% of Americans name their financial situation as the top source of stress in their lives.
- Politics or current affairs: In the age of social media, political debate is a big source of stress for many people. The polarization of society is hard to escape, when the news is available 24/7 on mobile phones, and arguments abound on every imaginable issue. Studies have established the direct correlation between political activism on social media and heightened stress levels.
- Life events: According to the famous Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, the top most stressful life events are death of a spouse or child, divorce, marital separation, imprisonment, death of a close family member, and serious illness, such as heart disease. But it’s not just the tragedies of life that are stressful. “Marriage” is listed as the seventh most stressful life event, while “retirement” comes in at number 10.
How to Know if Stress is the Cause of the Symptoms You’re Feeling?
If some stress is a normal part of life, then how can you know if you are over-stressed or if stress is causing symptoms? Is it just a headache, or is it an unhealthy response to stress? Is it possible to be stressed and think that you actually aren’t? Yes, stress can be hard to detect.
Many people only come to the realization that they are stressed after the stress becomes severe or chronic. The way to know if stress is causing you unwanted feelings and symptoms is to get to know yourself and pay close attention to your moods and reactions.
The better you know yourself, the easier it will be to feel when your stress is getting out of control. It may be helpful to discuss your stress with a counselor or psychologist. Talking out about your problems is an excellent way to relieve stressful energy, create a sense of calm, and give yourself the space to determine whether you’ve really got your stress under control.
Long-Term Stress vs Short-Term Stress
Stress usually lasts for the duration of a stressful event. If you have a big presentation at work, you may feel very stressed in the lead-up to the event, but once it’s done (and particularly if it goes well!), then it is followed by a sense of relief.
Now you can relax! This is an example of short-term stress. Long-term stress covers a prolonged period of time, for example, during a messy and drawn-out divorce, or a very high-pressure job. In these cases, stress may become chronic, because there is little or no chance of relief.
When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to anxiety, depression, and physical ailments, and can have a big impact on quality of life. That is why it is so important to nip stress in the bud and make sure you are managing stress properly so it does not become chronic.
Is It Stress or Anxiety? How to Tell the Difference
Stress is a normal and natural response to any stressor. Your boss is angry, you feel stressed. You are running late for an appointment, you feel stressed. Anxiety, on the other hand, is when your body enters a “fight or flight” response, however, there is no obvious stressor that it is responding to. In other words, anxiety is an exaggerated and inappropriate reaction to perceived stress or danger.
The best way to tell whether you are stressed or anxious is to sit still for a few moments and think deeply about the source of your feelings. Is your stress a clear and appropriate reaction to something going on in your life? Or are you having an exaggerated and illogical response that reflects a heightened level of anxiety? If you can answer that question honestly, then you’ll know if it is stress or anxiety.
Should I talk to a doctor about stress?
Any time you feel your stress may be excessive or overwhelming, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor. While stress causes a whole host of emotional symptoms if left untreated, it can also lead to physical problems. Learning how to manage stress is key to gaining control before you develop a stress disorder.
Your family physician is a great place to start, and if necessary, they can refer you to a therapist to delve more deeply into the causes of your stress and how to cope with stress differently and more effectively.
5 Ways to Relieve Your Stress in 5 Minutes or Less
Stress is volatile. It can arise suddenly and catch you when you least expect it. Or it can linger and make it difficult to continue your day. Managing stress is a life-long endeavor, but there are lots of ways you can get stress relief quickly and calm down your senses before it escalates.
Here are 5 ways you can relieve stress in just a few minutes:
- Use a biofeedback device: Relieve stress fast with the help of biofeedback, a technique that trains you to notice and calm the physiological symptoms of stress as they occur. With a biofeedback device like the Reflect Orb, you can calm your breathing, control your heart rate and relieve other nervous responses in 5 minutes or less, whenever you need it.
- Take a brisk walk in nature: Fresh air, sunshine and a change of scenery are all antidotes to stress. Taking a few minutes away from a stressful situation for a brisk walk is a great way to quickly calm the nerves.
- Breathwork: Long deep breaths are a great way to slow your heart rate, and bring stress levels down. You can do breathwork anywhere – in the car, at your desk, even during a meeting! If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, a few minutes of focused and intentional breathing can do wonders.
- Write in a journal: Writing your thoughts and feelings down on paper is an effective way to remove stressful energy from the mind and body. Take a few minutes to write in a journal – don’t worry about whether it sounds ‘good’ or makes sense or if it’s filled with grammatical errors. The point is to express your stress and let go of it.
- Listen to relaxing music: Music has amazing calming power. In fact, playing music with a rhythm of 60 beats per minute helps create alpha brain waves, which are associated with relaxation. If you are feeling stressed, listen to relaxing, uplifting music and you’ll soon feel your stress levels go down.
The bottom line
Stress is neither good nor bad. It is a natural part of life. However, when stress becomes too much, it may turn into chronic stress and even a stress disorder. Then problems can arise, in the form of physical symptoms, emotional symptoms and mental health issues.
Don’t let your normal stress response get out of hand – start by becoming conscious of your thoughts, feelings, and reactions to stress, so you can begin managing your stress appropriately, and achieve better health and wellness, and calmer inner life.