Managing stress: Definition, Symptoms, Prevention, Therapy
Stress is a common experience we all go through in life. It is part of life and no-one can say that he has never experienced stress.
Stress is a response from your body to the situation you are currently going through. Your body has built-in mechanisms to deal with situations which are not part of the ‘normal.’
Your body has a natural way in which it works. If you are for example employed, you know that you will wake up and go to work. You expect to do a certain amount and type of work. At the end of the month, you expect to get paid.
When anything goes against this routine, your body recognizes the change as a potential threat. Your body then responds to this threat in various ways. Examples of threats in this case could be when you are required to get to work earlier or leave later than normal.
Other examples include working for the whole month but your pay gets delayed for whatever reason. You could also be allocated more work than you agreed on when getting employed. You could do your normal work but have the amount increased. Or just have it come with a shorter deadline.
As these situations take place, your body seeks for ways to cope. This is what results in stress.
At the same time, in some situations, stress can actually be a good thing. For example, when working and a deadline is fast approaching, you will get stressed. As a result, your body will stop focusing on other aspects of your life and concentrate on the work at hand.
You will find that you cannot be easily distracted and end up finishing the work on time.
CAUSES OF STRESS
People react differently to stressful situations. Whereas some people can maneuver most stressful situations well enough, others can become almost paralyzed at the thought of a perceived threat.
Stress can be caused by past life events. When something negative happens but you don’t completely heal from it, then chances are high that you will be stressed about it. This will happen anytime you remember the event.
On the other hand, when you anticipate a situation which you don’t see yourself as having complete or enough control over, then you could also get stressed. This is because you do not see much hope in the situation yet you have to go through it.
Current situations can also be causes of stress. When you go through a situation that is proving difficult to handle, stress is inevitable. Below are some of the common causes of stress.
Job loss – we mostly work to earn a living and support our many life goals. For some who may be seen as fortunate, they work out of passion. Either way, we need jobs. Being such important things, jobs are many times jealously guarded.
This may come through competition in the market between different companies or even between employees in the same organization. Another ever-present threat is the introduction of technology. It then becomes obvious that if you lose relevance, you lose your position.
When this happens, and considering the rates of unemployment, some questions are bound to arise whose answers are not easy to come by. How do you provide for your family? How do you pay for your mortgage? Where do you get money for food?
Ultimately, stress kicks in.
Unemployment – related to job loss, is the lack of a job in the first place. You have grown up knowing that you will go to school, study well, graduate then get a good job. So what happens if the good job isn’t coming your way? Worse still, what if no job at all is forthcoming?
You will end up losing touch with friends as it is not easy to relate with people you are not on the same level with. And as your friends land jobs and become busy with work, you experience loneliness and frustrations with life. As such, stress easily gets the better of you.
Poverty – people will never be at the same level. This truth can however be quite bitter to those who are victims of it. Nobody likes poverty, yet some are not just in it but actively live in it.
Some people live on less than two dollars a day. Others have enough disposable income to buy luxurious super yachts. Such statistics can make life seem quite unfair.
Poverty may be blamed on various issues like the lack of opportunities but at the end of the day, human needs are not optional, at least not the basic ones. Those who constantly get sick or often go hungry with no means to sustain themselves have higher levels of stress.
Relationship problems – mention relationships and people get excited. Why? Relationships always bring thoughts of love. Whether friendships or romantic relationships, they all are meant to satisfy one important need of every human being—give a sense of belonging and worth.
Stress can easily be caused by relationship problems which are not resolved. Some relationships end up being what they were not expected to be. Others deteriorate faster than a candle can burn. Others still, the abusive types, become synonymous with a death sentence.
Such things can quickly make your levels of stress skyrocket. With some telling you that things will work out right and others advising you to terminate it, you might as well be confused. Moreover, the very nature of relationships can further contribute to stress.
Divorce – the beginning of romantic relationships is always beautiful and sort of a wonder. You get captivated and literally swept off your feet by the smiles and caring gestures of the person who made you know what love.
All in all, you expect the future to be better than both the past and present. And it all starts well until some issues come up which you two are apparently unable to resolve. The truth is, there is no issue that cannot be resolved but how people look at things matters most.
When disagreements end up in a decision to terminate the marriage, things aren’t often easy to handle. If there are children in the marriage, it becomes even more difficult. The court cases aren’t necessarily short and the emotional account of events doesn’t make things any easier.
Illnesses – while some illnesses are short and considered quite common like the common cold, others are long-term and burdensome. When you think of sicknesses like cancer and arthritis, conditions which can make movement and lifestyles change, you will be grateful to be well.
Apart from the expenses needed to sustain life during sicknesses, the emotional effort to see life as normal can be hard to muster. You may be overwhelmed with thoughts of failure and see how you will never be able to do anything important for yourself.
Unwanted pregnancy – this is the result of the desire to indulge the joys of romantic relationships without much thought of the consequences. With arguments concerning whether it is better to abstain before marriage or engage in protected sex, many people, especially young adults get trapped in between.
There are those who easily take the abortion path upon realizing that they are pregnant while others get haunted by their conscience. Some take morning-after pills to prevent this eventuality. However, all these apparent solutions have their long-term effects.
Parenting – we start off life as infants, grow to become children, teenagers, young and old adults. At some point, those who were children have their own children and it’s always a beauty to see the younger version of you. But parenting is not always full of joyous moments.
When children wake up at 2 AM and demand that you play with them till they get tired, then you know what stress means. Moreover, statistics show that family responsibilities rank highly among sources of stress among adults.
Uncertainty – every human being wants and desires to be in control. You want to be able to predict life events and plan for them. More importantly, you want things to go just as planned. Anything else is not allowed. This is normal.
It is however important to realize that life will never be very predictable. There will always be uncertainties in life. Your capacity to deal with uncertainties will always get challenged and this need to change or adapt to new ways of life may not be easy.
TYPES OF STRESS
Stress happens at different levels and affects people differently. Some cope quite well while others succumb, maybe too easily. It is all an issue of how well trained you are because stress will always be a part of your life.
Stress is divided into three types. These are discussed below.
Acute stress can be said to be the “normal” stress that you face every day. From deadlines at work, traffic congestion, parenting challenges, the difficulty of working on a new project etc. It is usually short-term and as soon as the problem at hand is dealt with, the stress disappears.
Being an early stage of development, the symptoms of acute stress are rarely serious. That does not mean they should be ignored.
Your body advises you that you need to remove the stressful situation from your life. If that is not possible, then you should remove yourself from the situation. Whichever way, you need to separate yourself from the situation.
Below are some of the symptoms which you will normally experience if you have acute stress.
You may or may not notice that you have become irritable once stress sets in. This is because your focus has shifted to taking care of the situation.
Interestingly, in most cases, if someone tells you that you are getting angry for no reason, you are likely to get more angry. According to you, what you need is for people to understand you and offer help. This is very much the truth but the problem is that you may not be very approachable at that moment.
This makes communication difficult and people may not be in a position to understand what kind of help you need. If you have some work to finish, you may have a hard time explaining the quality of work you need to someone willing to help you.
And if they don’t deliver as per your needs, you may not appreciate their effort. Irritability will often make people want to stay away from you. In the long run, the loneliness can cause serious damage.
Your head is the house of your brain. Your brain is what controls your body. Everything from your emotions to your logic, they are all controlled and run from your brain. When things are not running normally, your brain will feel the stress.
One of the ways your brain seeks to tackle the situation is by releasing the necessary hormones into your bloodstream. This enables you to concentrate more, work faster and ultimately deal with the situation.
However, that is not the only thing that happens when you get stressed. Tension headaches can also be experienced as a result of stress. This is where you feel a tightness across your forehead or the back of your neck.
These pains are very common whenever you are stressed out about something. This comes about due to the tightening of your muscles as a result of the work of your stress hormones.
Since stress is a perceived danger, stress hormones tighten your muscles in order to make your body more resilient to any attacks that may come its way. You may also experience the stiffening of muscles in other parts of your body as a result of stress.
Watch the below video for three simple exercises you can do to help you deal with back pains.
The connection between stress and heartburn is not very obvious although it exists. Your digestive system, like other systems in your body, are controlled by your brain. When your body senses danger and stress hormones get released, two things happen to increase the chances of experiencing heartburn.
First, any food that was in your stomach will stay there longer than necessary. This is due to your brain quite literally shutting down the “unnecessary operations” to concentrate on the main agenda of dealing with stress. Since there has to be either a fight or flight, focus goes to the muscles.
With food lying in the stomach for longer, the acid is likely to make its way up your gut causing the feeling of heartburn. The other way stress contributes to heartburn is by making you extremely sensitive to the slightest of pains.
Stress heightens your level of sensitivity and whereas you would normally not recognize small amounts of acid in your gut, you will now notice them quite quickly. This is your body’s way of being alert to any danger so as to respond appropriately.
Your digestive system is closely connected to your brain. When something is not right with how you feel, the interpretation of the situation will affect your digestive system.
Remember that stress triggers the fight-or-flight response? Your bowel movements do not help you in any way if you need to either fight or run. As a result, blood flow and concentration on your digestive system is reduced.
With stress, you are also likely not to be eating well enough. Instead of foods high in fiber, you are probably going for high-fat and high-sugar ready-made foods in an effort to get more busts of energy. When you visit the bathroom, the results will be evident as you struggle to pass stool.
Irritable bowel syndrome
This digestive disorder is a common problem for people with stress. Although it is not directly tied to stress, studies have shown that IBS patients usually suffer some form of stress.
The connection has mainly been thought to be through the immune system link. There are two main theories of this connection. One is the fact that stress makes your brain more sensitive to the muscular contractions that happen in the colon.
The other theory suggested by researches is based on how stress affects the immune system, which in turn may trigger bouts of irritable bowel syndrome.
There have been cases of stressed people feeling dizzy. Although more studies need to be conducted for this, scientists believe this happens when your vestibular system senses that things aren’t right.
Your vestibular system is responsible for your body’s position and consists of your inner ears, certain areas of your brain and the nerves that connect them. Studies done show the possible connection being in the areas of the brain responsible for dizziness and those responsible for stress interacting.
This is a condition that may be diagnosed outside of stress but has sure links with stress. Medically, this condition is called Palmar Hyperhidrosis. This diagnosis will be confirmed if you sweat more than 20 milligrams per minute through your palms.
In itself, the condition can cause stress and even anxiety. Some researchers have described a cycle of sweaty palms leading to stress, further leading to more sweaty palms.
One of the things that happen with the onset of stress, is increased sweating. With an increased heart rate and blood flowing to your muscles, heat is generated and your body needs to cool off the heat. Although sweating through your palms is quite natural, in stressful situations, it becomes extreme.
This comes about when the cause of acute stress is not completely dealt with. This is due to you having treated the symptoms of stress without addressing the underlying issue.
As such, the stress promptly returns and as you might guess, it is always worse than it was previously.
Stress always start as acute. How you deal with it determines whether it comes up again. When it does, then you have episodic stress.
As a progression from acute stress, the symptoms are not very different from those of acute stress. They are mainly at a higher level though in some cases, you may experience other symptoms too. Some of these are discussed below.
Inability to concentrate
When stress becomes episodic, the effects are no longer more focus so as to finish the pending job. You start experiencing a lack of concentration such that you cannot do what you are supposed to do well. This is the point at which your colleagues start complaining about the quality of work you produce.
This should be a very clear sign that you should stop everything and fix the problem first. With lack of concentration, more issues are likely to come up. Due to unproductivity, you may face disciplinary action at work, cause accidents and even lose relationships. These will just lead to more stress.
Unmanaged stress will often lead to anxiety. At the level of anxiety, you are slowly losing control of the situation and it is about to start controlling you. Anxiety is a serious mental condition that can lead to depression and other equally-serious conditions.
One of the reasons you have stress is because you don’t know what the future holds. For example, you may not know how your boss will respond to your late arrival at work. You may not be sure what your spouse is thinking considering that you responded harshly when asked about getting home late.
In the stressful situation, your thoughts are rarely orderly and realistic. You will often be pessimistic and no proper planning is possible with a negative mindset. Your mind will however not stop thinking.
With no answers to the perceived dangers awaiting you in the future, you stay in a state of constant worry as you don’t know how to handle the future. Unfortunately, you fail to realize that the apparent dangerous future is a creation of your own mind under the influence of the stress you’re experiencing.
Loss of sex drive
Men are visual; women are emotional. All the same, all sex starts in the mind. No matter how much you may have promised yourself to enjoy the benefits of having sex, stress will ensure that it doesn’t happen.
For you to have high libido, your body and mind must be in good shape and episodic stress is evidence that this is not the case. Although sex can help fight stress, episodic stress becomes a hindrance to sex.
If your partner is constantly asking you for sex and you are turning them down due to stress, this may further worsen the situation. On the other hand, agreeing to having sex while still stressed in your mind can result in you not being “present” during sex.
This may result in accusations of infidelity made against you. Or a situation where you’re told that you’re not good in bed. These will further increase your stress levels.
Increased or reduced eating
As your body seeks to power through stress, blood flow to your muscles is increased and more energy is released to enable you do what is needed.
For some people, they will experience a somewhat irresistible need to eat more. This can be seen as the need for more energy (fuel for the muscles). It may also be viewed as a way of attempting to forget the problems (eating comfort foods).
Eating because you are stressed is commonly referred to as stress eating. Watch the below video to understand the science behind it.
Stress affects your quality of sleep by making your mind remain constantly active, even when it should rest. During the night, your body’s internal clock, called the circadian rhythm, signals to your brain the need to calm down for some sleep.
However, the mind knows that there is still work to be done. So, it doesn’t shut things down as expected. Your body ends up staying awake thus you fail to get the benefits of the muscle repair that happens while you sleep.
Unfortunately, the lack of sleep worsens things because with no rest or insufficient rest, your body is not well prepared to tackle the day ahead. That in itself is a cause of stress. And the cycle continues.
Stressful situations tend to draw you in so as to concentrate on the stressful situation. Whereas this is helpful at the initial stages, it leads to isolating behavior when it progresses unchecked.
As the stress continues and the situation gets worse, you start isolating yourself primarily due to the feeling that the people around you do not understand your situation. This however is really the result of your irritability that has created a gap between you and your friends and family.
People will generally want to avoid associating much with people under stress because the effects of those relations can be very negative. Your day may start off badly just because you got a harsh response from someone who was stressed.
If episodic stress continues for a long time, then things become worse and you get diagnosed with chronic stress. Chronic stress is a dangerous condition to have. It disrupts many systems of your body. The worst thing about it is that it gives the feeling that the situation is “normal.”
When you see your elevated stress levels as normal, then your body has started changing so as to adapt. Your body literally functions quite differently from the way it is supposed to.
Unfortunately, the warning signs at this stage are no longer those of impending danger but symptoms of serious medical conditions. Some of the symptoms of chronic stress include:
Chronic stress increases the pressure with which your blood is pumped. Whereas this is supposed to be a temporary occurrence during stressful moments, it has now become your new normal.
In itself, high blood pressure can cause major conditions like heart attacks, loss of vision, kidney damage, stroke and others. It is obvious that these conditions themselves will create sources of more stress because they require more effort to contain them.
Weight gain or loss
When chronic stress is the problem, you are bound to over-eat. This is the result of high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your blood. One of the effects of sustained high levels of cortisol is that it increases the amount of insulin in your blood.
With high insulin levels, your blood sugar drops and your body starts asking for more sugar. When you crave for food so as to generate energy, you will find yourself just going for two sources: sugary and fatty foods. These are the culprits of weight gain.
At the same time, chronic stress puts your body in a constant need for energy. This causes your body to burn more fuel as it needs to work harder than normal. Also, your body’s response to stress leads to a decrease in your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the food you eat.
The food you eat is also not well digested because your brain is limiting the supply of blood to your digestive system. This ultimately leads to weight loss.
By the time you are getting to chronic stress, much of your social skills are no longer being utilized for your social interactions. You tend to lose your temper more often than you know.
Violent actions from you may further cost you important relationships like your close friends and family. For example, where violence is experienced in the family, marriage becomes abusive and could potentially lead to divorce or separation.
Following a violent action, you could get arrested and convicted for certain crimes, causing you to spend much of your future life in prison.
Drug and alcohol dependence
Chronic stress is closely linked with cases of drug and alcohol dependence. This is an effort to seek comfort and drugs provide it though temporarily. As soon as the feeling of comfort ends, you will feel the need to get another dose of this self-prescribed treatment.
Taking drugs gives your body feelings of calm, joy or well-being, depending on what drugs you take. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is what gets released when most drugs hit your brain. Your brain’s reward system gets activated and you start enjoying the activity you are engaging in.
Unfortunately, these drugs have other effects which are rarely taken into account. You will most likely consider the resulting good feelings and ignore the negative impact the drugs have on your health.
For example, heavy drinking of alcohol causes your brain to shrink, causes heart damage, mouth and throat cancer, liver damage, infertility and sexual dysfunction.
When chronic stress is not managed properly, it can lead to the worst symptom—suicide. Although you may not live to experience this symptom, it is a sure loss of value both to you, your friends and your family. Committing suicide means you have given up all hope and see no meaning in living.
As sad as this is, suicide is never an out of the blue decision. It is usually something that has built up over time. Feelings of hopelessness slowly crop up into your mind and the more they get room to flourish, the more they establish themselves.
With time, you start believing that life is meaningless and you would rather die than live in misery.
Your body is good at communicating to you whenever things go wrong. You should just learn to understand what your body is trying to tell you.
With stress, you should aim at battling it as soon as it starts otherwise the problem will become too big to easily deal with.
All the same, as much as you cannot stop stress entirely, managing it is possible. Below we look at some of the ways of preventing stress from running your life.
Identify your stressors
The first step towards preventing stress is by identifying the things which cause you stress. These stressors can then be avoided knowing that despite the effort that may be needed, it is an investment towards a better future.
Sit down and think through what has happened in your life in the past. Bring to memory past stressful situations and play them back to find out what started it all. The moment you narrow down to it, write it down. Do not be in a hurry as your mind may not quickly deliver results it’s not used to providing.
If you find it difficult putting together this list, then you can ask a friend or family member to assist you. The goal is to know what to avoid.
Learn to say “No”
Are you too nice to people? If you tend to sacrifice a lot for other people at the expense of your own life goals, then the answer is ‘Yes.’ Another way of getting the answer to this question is by just checking the number of requests you get to assist with jobs, assignments, projects etc.
You may have been told how resourceful you are (and indeed you are) but that does not mean that you agree to everything you’re requested to do. If you do, then you will never have time for yourself.
That means no time and energy to pursue your own goals, enjoy your hobbies and just live life in your terms. Why? Someone else or some other people are indirectly controlling your time and energy.
If you have trouble saying no, then you need to learn a skill called assertiveness. This helps you learn how to control yourself and only agree to what you are genuinely comfortable with. You will also learn how to avoid the sense of guilt that you fear will result in saying no.
Exercising regularly can never be overstated because the benefits are abundant. Every part of your body will benefit from exercises. When you exercise, your brain produces feel-good hormones which help you relax and enjoy life.
Exercising is both a prevention and curative technique against stress. During the exercise, you will be more excited than stressed and afterwards, get a sense of calm which will help you in other areas including your ability to sleep and think properly.
Rest / sleep
Stress greatly inhibits your ability to rest and sleep because it keeps you active. As long as your mind is active, sleeping becomes difficult. You will be constantly thinking of the situation at hand trying to come up with solutions.
If employed, stress may make you want to carry your work home thinking that you will be able to concentrate more at home. Although this might be true, it is not always the case. You may get home and become more aware of your bed than your computer or files.
It is crucial that you start by separating between work time and rest time. If you don’t have a specified time for resting and working, you will find that these two overlap. In the overlap, your work may carry more weight than your sleep due to the external pressure from your boss or clients.
Sleeping helps you calm down and enables your body to repair the worn out tissues. With enough sleep, you will be in a better position to handle stress.
Prioritize your work
Prioritizing your work is not just about numbering the tasks you need to work on. You should attach value to the tasks and list them starting with the most important to the least important. You will find that some tasks are not even important at all.
After listing the things to do, you then proceed to focus only on the tasks you are currently working on. Everything else is a distraction and should be avoided. If you feel the urge or apparent need to think about he task following the current one, you should resist it at all costs.
Watch the below short video for some tips you can use to avoid distractions.
Avoiding distractions will help you learn discipline. You will then start realizing that you are achieving your goals. This is all because you removed the things which were not necessary and focused on what was important.
All successful people have great levels of discipline. To a large extent, this is what sets them apart from others. Whereas everyone has dreams and ambitions, few have the discipline of dropping unproductive habits and learning productive ones.
Stress can not only be prevented but also managed. Stress is not considered a treatable condition because it can never be removed from your life. Stress is a normal part of life. This is however true only for acute stress. The moment it becomes episodic or chronic, it stops being normal.
Stress therapy is therefore designed to manage the levels of stress in your life. Some of the therapy methods are also prevention methods which have been mentioned above. These include sleeping and exercising. Some other techniques of managing stress include the below.
Stress mostly comes from some work which needs to be finished either to a certain high standard or by an approaching deadline. It is crucial that you seek help with the work. Never try to live and work like a lone ranger. Sure, the thrill can be exciting but soon, life will throw you some unexpected balls.
While working with others, ensure you involve them early. Waiting till the last minute can prove dangerous because you have no guarantee that the person you intend to approach has the time to help you. And even if he did, it might take him some time to understand what you need done.
Such a situation can really fuel your stress as you see the explanations as time wasted. This is how stressed people end up deciding that they are better off just doing the job by themselves thus continuing in the stress.
With people to help you, entrust the portion of work to them and don’t try to micromanage them. Appreciate the help they are offering and allow yourself to have some peace of mind. You will notice your stress levels going down.
Get a massage
The release of stress hormones into your bloodstream causes your muscles to stiffen. This causes muscle pain and unless the hormones finish their work, those muscles will remain stiff. Remember this is your body’s way of protecting you from the imminent danger you are facing.
Instead of waiting for your body to finish what it started, you can do something to help it. Just get a massage. A massage will relax your muscles and send the signal to your brain that all is well. That you are no longer in danger. Also, massages cause you to have feelings of calm and relaxation.
Getting a massage also offers other benefits apart from lowering your stress levels. Some of them are improving your immunity, helps you sleep better and relieves headaches.
The beauty of some scents goes beyond the sweet smells and actually help you relax.
Most often, aromatherapy is used through inhalation. Essential oils are evaporated into the air using diffusers or breathed in when taking a steam bath. When the scents reach your brain, feel-good chemicals like serotonin are released, bringing about the feeling of relaxation.
Essential oils can also be used on the skin during massage. The main precaution is that these oils are supposed to be used when diluted with carrier oils. It is also important to consult a trained aromatherapist before doing this by yourself. You can learn about various oils and their uses here.
You are always advised to talk to a counselor whenever you are stressed. Do not keep to yourself because those moments of being alone can cause a lot of negative thinking. This can result in suicidal thoughts, leading to actual suicide.
It is important to find a qualified psychotherapist who can listen to you, understand your situation and help you manage stress effectively. Psychotherapists are people who have been trained in psychology and can recognize problems from the situations you narrate to them.
This website will help you connect with a therapist.
Listen to calming music
Music is also therapeutic in nature. In fact, music is more powerful than you may recognize. Ever noticed that listening to upbeat music causes you to start moving your body in rhythm with the beats? If you haven’t experienced it before, then calming music can literally calm you down.
Sit in a comfortable position or even lie on your bed and just play the music. Do not think much about how to stop your mind from indulging the thoughts running in it. The music will do that for you. Just ensure you set your alarm so as to avoid drifting to sleep for longer than intended.
Take a walk
Walking is a widely-recognized exercise that everyone can engage in. As simple as it is, taking a walk helps calm your mind by shifting your focus from the stressful situation and onto something else. If you live near a park, take advantage of it and walk in the park. You can take some breaks to enjoy the serenity of the park.
Although you can walk to manage stress that has already set in, walking also works to prevent more stress from coming your way. Especially if you make it part of your lifestyle. So, enjoy the walk knowing that it’s serving a great purpose.
Stress will always find its way into your life since that is just the nature of life. However, you do not need to be afraid of it as you can easily manage it by making the necessary lifestyle changes. Embrace the changes and live a better life.
Dopamine is one of the feel-good hormones. As defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, it’s “a …