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.
Stress - 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
- We do not all interpret each situation in the same way.
- Because of this, we do not all call on the same resources for each situation
- 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.
A hectic home life can cause you to feel stressed and exhausted
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, researchers at the University of Western Ontario found.
In modern society we lead ever more busy lives
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 you
Possible effects of stress 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
- 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
Possible effects of stress on your thoughts and feelings:
- Feeling of insecurity
- Problem concentrating
Possible effects of stress 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
On the next page we look at the common causes of stress, diagnosis and how to deal with stress.