Thursday, August 1, 2013

What is Stress and How to Deal with Stress

We generally use the word "stress" when we feel that everything seems to have become too much - we are overloaded and wonder whether we really can cope with the pressures placed upon us. Anything that poses a challenge or a threat to our well-being is a stress. Some stresses get you going and they are good for you - without any stress at all many say our lives would be boring and would probably feel pointless. However, when the stresses undermine both our mental and physical health they are bad. In this text we shall be focusing on stress that is bad for you.

The difference between "stress" and "a stressor" - a stressor is an agent or stimulus that causes stress. Stress is the feeling we have when under pressure, while stressors are the things we respond to in our environment. Examples of stressors are noises, unpleasant people, a speeding car, or even going out on a first date. Generally (but not always), the more stressors we experience, the more stressed we feel.

Fight or flight response

The way you respond to a challenge may also be a type of stress. Part of your response to a challenge is physiological and affects your physical state. When faced with a challenge or a threat, your body activates resources to protect you - to either get away as fast as you can, or fight.

If you are upstairs at home and an earthquake starts, the faster you can get yourself and your family out the more likely you are all to survive. If you need to save somebody's life during that earthquake, by lifting a heavy weight that has fallen on them, you will need components in your body to be activated to give you that extra strength - that extra push.

Our fight-or-flight response is our body's sympathetic nervous system reacting to a stressful event. Our body produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which trigger a higher heart rate, heightened muscle preparedness, sweating, and alertness - all these factors help us protect ourselves in a dangerous or challenging situation.

Non-essential body functions slow down, such as our digestive and immune systems when we are in fight-or flight response mode. All resources can then be concentrated on rapid breathing, blood flow, alertness and muscle use.

When we are stressed the following happens:
  • Blood pressure rises
  • Breathing becomes more rapid
  • Digestive system slows down
  • Heart rate (pulse) rises
  • Immune system goes down
  • Muscles become tense
  • We do not sleep (heightened state of alertness)
Most of us have varying interpretations of what stress is about and what matters. Some of us focus on what happens to us, such as breaking a bone or getting a promotion, while others think more about the event itself. What really matters are our thoughts about the situations in which we find ourselves.

We are continually sizing up situations that confront us in life. We assess each situation, deciding whether something is a threat, how we can deal with it and what resources we can use. If we conclude that the required resources needed to effectively deal with a situation are beyond what we have available, we say that that situation is stressful - and we react with a classical stress response. On the other hand, if we decide our available resources and skills are more than enough to deal with a situation, it is not seen as stressful to us.

How we respond to stress affects our health

    1. We do not all interpret each situation in the same way.
    2. Because of this, we do not all call on the same resources for each situation
    3. We do not all have the same resources and skills.
    Some situations which are not negative ones may still be perceived as stressful. This is because we think we are not completely prepared to cope with them effectively. Examples being: having a baby, moving to a nicer house, and being promoted. Having a baby is usually a wonderful thing, so is being promoted or moving to a nicer house. But, moving house is a well-known source of stress.

    It is important to learn that what matters more than the event itself is usually our thoughts about the event when we are trying to manage stress. How you see that stressful event will be the largest single factor that impacts on your physical and mental health. Your interpretation of events and challenges in life may decide whether they are invigorating or harmful for you.

    A persistently negative response to challenges will eventually have a negative effect on your health and happiness. Experts say people who tend to perceive things negatively need to understand themselves and their reactions to stress-provoking situations better. Then they can learn to manage stress more successfully.

    Perception of stress affects heart attack risk - people who believe their stress is affecting their health in a big way are twice as likely to have a heart attack ten years later, according to researchers at the University of Western Ontario.

    First author, Dr Hermann Nabi, believes that doctors should bear in mind patients' subjective perceptions of stress when deciding on treatment.

    In another study carried out at Pennsylvania State University, the investigators found that stress was not the problem, but rather how we react to stressors. It appears that how patients react to stress is a predictor of their health a decade later, regardless of their present health and stressors.

    Lead researcher, Professor David Almeida said "For example, if you have a lot of work to do today and you are really grumpy because of it, then you are more likely to suffer negative health consequences 10 years from now than someone who also has a lot of work to do today, but doesn't let it bother her."

    Some of the effects of stress on your body, your thoughts and feelings, and on your behavior:

    Effect on your body
    • A tendency to sweat
    • Back pain
    • Chest pain
    • Childhood obesity - researchers at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia published a report in Pediatrics in October 2012 explaining that a number of stressors from parents can increase the risk of obesity in their children. Lead researcher, Elizabeth Prout-Parks, M.D., said "Stress in parents may be an important risk factor for child obesity and related behaviors. The severity and number of stressors are important."

      Examples of stressors include mental health problems, poor physical health, financial strain, and trying to manage in a single-parent household.
    • Cramps or muscle spasms
    • Erectile dysfunction
    • Fainting spells
    • Headache
    • Heart disease
    • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
    • Loss of libido
    • Lower immunity against diseases
    • Muscular aches
    • Nail biting
    • Nervous twitches
    • Pins and needles
    • Sleeping difficulties
    • Stomach upset
    Effect on your thoughts and feelings
    • Anger
    • Anxiety
    • Burnout
    • Depression
    • Feeling of insecurity
    • Forgetfulness
    • Irritability
    • Problem concentrating
    • Restlessness
    • Sadness
    • Fatigue
    Effect on your behavior
    • Eating too much
    • Eating too little
    • Food cravings
    • Sudden angry outbursts
    • Drug abuse                                                                               
    • Alcohol abuse
    • Higher tobacco consumption
    • Social withdrawal                                                        
    • Frequent crying
    • Relationship problems

    What are the causes of stress?

    We all react differently to stressful situations. What one person finds stressful another may not at all. Almost anything can cause stress and it has different triggers. For some people, on some occasions, just thinking about something, or several small things that accumulate, can cause stress.

    The most common causes of stress are:
    • Bereavement
    • Family problems
    • Financial matters
    • Illness
    • Job issues - according to a UK charity "Mind", work is the leading cause of stress in British people's lives, concerning factors that may have a significant impact on their wellbeing.
    • Lack of time
    • Moving home
    • Relationships (including divorce)
    The following are also causes of stress
    • Abortion
    • Becoming a mother or a father
    • Conflicts in the workplace
    • Driving in bad traffic
    • Fear of crime
    • Losing your job
    • Miscarriage
    • Noisy neighbors
    • Overcrowding
    • Pollution
    • Pregnancy
    • Retirement
    • Too much noise
    • Uncertainty (awaiting laboratory test results, academic exam results, job interview results, etc)
    It is possible that a person feels stressed and no clear cause is identified. A feeling of frustration, anxiety and depression can make some people feel stressed more easily than others.

    Maternal stress and bullying later on at school

    If a mother experiences severe mental stress during her pregnancy, there is a greater risk that her child will be bullied at school later on, researchers from the University of Warwick, England, reported in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

    The researchers had gathered and examined data on 14,000 moms and 8,829 children. They evaluated mothers' post-natal period, family adversity, anxiety and depression during pregnancy, as well as bullying incidences among their children aged from 7 to 10 years.

    They found that mental stress during pregnancy impacted on the child's chances of being bullied later on.

    Lead researcher, Professor Dieter Wolke, said "Changes in the stress response system can affect behavior and how children react emotionally to stress such as being picked on by a bully. Children who more easily show a stress reaction such as crying, running away, anxiety are then selected by bullies to home in to. The whole thing becomes a vicious cycle, a child with an altered stress response system is more likely to be bullied, which affects their stress response even further and increases the likelihood of them developing mental health problems in later life."

    Diagnosis of stress

    A good primary care physician (GP - General Practitioner) should be able to diagnose stress based on the patient's symptoms alone. Some doctors may wish to run some tests, such as a blood or urine, or a health assessment.

    The diagnosis of stress depends on many factors and is complex, say experts. A wide range of approaches to stress diagnosis have been used by health care professionals, such as the use of questionnaires, biochemical measures, and physiological techniques. Experts add that the majority of these methods are subject to experimental error and should be viewed with caution. The most practicable way to diagnose stress and its effects on a person is through a comprehensive, stress-oriented, face-to-face interview.

    How to deal with stress

    There are three broad methods you can follow to treat stress, they include self-help, self management, and medication.

    Self help for treating stress
      Exercise - exercise has been proven to have a beneficial effect on a person's mental and physical state. For many people exercise is an extremely effective stress buster.

      Division of labor - try to delegate your responsibilities at work, or share them. If you make yourself indispensable the likelihood of your feeling highly stressed is significantly greater.

      Assertiveness - don't say yes to everything. If you can't do something well, or if something is not your responsibility, try to seek ways of not agreeing to do them.

      Alcohol and drugs - alcohol and drugs will not help you manage your stress better. Either stop consuming them completely, or cut down.

      Caffeine - if your consumption of coffee and other drinks which contain caffeine is high, cut down.

      Nutrition - eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Make sure you have a healthy and balanced diet.

      Time - make sure you set aside some time each day just for yourself. Use that time to organize your life, relax, and pursue your own interests.

      Breathing - there are some effective breathing techniques which will slow down your system and help you relax.

      Talk - talk to you family, friends, work colleagues and your boss. Express your thoughts and worries.

      Seek professional help - if the stress is affecting the way you function; go and see your doctor. Heightened stress for prolonged periods can be bad for your physical and mental health.

      Relaxation techniques - mediation, massage, or yoga have been known to greatly help people with stress.

    Stress management techniques

    Stress management can help you to either remove or change the source of stress, alter the way you view a stressful event, lower the impact that stress might have on your body, and teach you alternative ways of coping. Stress management therapy will have the objective of pursuing one or more of these approaches.

    Stress management techniques can be gained if you read self-help books, or attend a stress management course. You can also seek the help of a counselor or psychotherapist for personal development or therapy sessions.

    Many therapies which help you relax, such as aromatherapy, or reflexology, may have a beneficial effect.

    Doctors will not usually prescribe medications for coping with stress, unless the patient has an underlying illness, such as depression or some type of anxiety. If that is the case, the doctor is actually treating a mental illness. In such cases, an antidepressant may be prescribed. Bear in mind that there is a risk that all the medication will do is mask the stress, rather than help you deal and cope with it.