What is Stress?
As a condition, which affects you, stress is the reaction of the mind and body to a stressor. A stressor is any event or force, which is powerful enough to affect the way you normally function, from a dead- line at work to a dose of flu to the death of a friend. Stressors like these can shake you, both mentally and physically, and the result is the condition known as stress.
What effect does stress have on you?
It’s known as the “fight or flight” syndrome. Back in pre-history, when humans lived much simpler lives, a stressor would probably be something like an encounter with a lion. The body would immediately react by preparing you to either fight the animal or run away as fast as possible. Hormones like adrenaline flood the body, giving the muscles higher tone so they are ready to react quickly. The heart beats faster, filling the muscles with blood from which they can draw energy, you breathe faster to get more oxygen and think faster to help you think your way out of trouble. There are a whole lot of other, similar effects, all of them intended to make as many resources as possible available in a crisis. When the stress response is prolonged, it can have serious consequences, on both your body and your mind.
Stress disorders may be classified as follows:
- Acute stress disorders occur when a person is exposed to a severe stressor causing intense fear, helplessness or horror and experiences recurrent thoughts or flashback episodes, associated with symptoms of anxiety lasting for up to 1 month after the traumatic event.
- Post traumatic stress disorder is diagnosed when such exposure to a severe stressor is associated with distressing recollections of the event and severe anxiety, lasting for more than 1 month.
- Intermittent stress is when a person regularly experiences stressors, leading to episodes of anxiety, and begins to feel that their life is “spinning out of control”.
- Chronic stress develops when ongoing exposure to anxiety causing stressors over a sustained period of time leads to feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, and even thoughts of suicide.
How does stress affect the body?
- Heart and circulation: while your pulse rate gets faster, your blood pressure rises. The blood gets stickier, so that if you are injured, it will clot more easily.
- Mouth, throat and digestive system: the mouth and throat become dry as fluids are diverted away from places where they’re not essential. The digestive system shuts down – you don’t need to spend energy on digesting food when faced with a lion!
- The skin: as the blood flow is diverted away from the skin, it becomes cool, clammy and sweaty. Your hair often feels as though it’s standing on end, because the skin tightens.
- The immune system: the white blood cells are the immune system’s soldiers which fight off infection, so they are sent to parts where you might be injured, like the skin and bone marrow.
- All of these reactions would not be dangerous if they were only taking place briefly and occasionally. But long-lasting stress can have serious implications:
- Raised blood pressure over the long-term can lead to heart disease, strokes or kidney failure if it is left untreated. Stickier blood increases the likelihood of a blood clot, which may block arteries and cause a heart attack.
- Prolonged disruptions of the digestive system can cause unpleasant symptoms like diarrhoea or constipation. Stress is linked to irritable bowel syndrome or spastic colon, which causes bouts of severe pain, and can also lead to episodes of extreme diarrhoea, followed by constipation.
- Skin conditions like psoriasis, exzcema and acne may be made worse by stress.
- Chronic stress affects the immune system, making you more vulnerable to developing infections like colds and flu, and even certain cancers.
- Stress can also disturb your hormonal system. Women may produce smaller amounts of oestrogen – which makes them more vulnerable to heart disease, they can even stop menstruating. Stress is linked to a reduced desire for sex, and men may experience erectile dysfunction (impotence).
- Since stress tightens up the muscles in preparation for action, it’s obvious that prolonged stress could cause stiffness and spasms.
- All these physical disturbances may cause a disruption in sleeping patterns.
How does stress affect the mind?
One of the most common problems that stressed people experience is an inability to concentrate and to remember. You may suffer from feelings of panic or fear, you may be more irritable and get angry more often and more easily, you may even suffer from depression, feeling that you are worthless and that life is not worth living.
Good stress and bad stress
Not all stress is bad stress. A certain amount of stress is normal and keeps body and mind functioning. Your feelings about the source of the stress contribute to how well you handle it, so good stress is less likely to have bad consequences. None of us would be very healthy if our lives contained no surprise, delight, shock or demands of any kind!
How do you cope with stress?
For most of us, the most common answer is, very badly. We tend to do all the wrong things under stress: we eat badly, reaching for fast foods loaded with sugar and fat, and forget to take our multi vitamins or chronic medications. We drink too much alcohol in an effort to relax, we smoke and we feel we don’t have the time to exercise. To avoid the dangers of stress, we really need to adopt a strategy that addresses the whole of our lives.
Stress management techniques
Exercise makes the body better able to cope with the physiological effects of stress. It improves circulation, loosens up muscles stiffened by tension and has a profound impact on your mental health – there’s strong evidence that exercise helps to fight off one of the most unpleasant mental effects of stress – depression.
Good nutrition: Your body and mind can’t cope with stress if you aren’t getting the nutrients they need to operate. Try to eat five portions a day of fruit and vegetables. You need a mix of vegetables to get the best nutrition – dark green leafy vegetables, orange-coloured vegetables, which contain lots of anti-oxidants, cruciform vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli, which contain cancer-fighters. It’s actually quite hard to get the nutrition you need from your food these days.
Food loses nutrients as it is harvested, handled and processed. So nutritional supplements will help to keep you well nourished. Choose a good multi-vitamin, and if you are under special stress, top up with extra B-complex vitamins, and a mix of calcium and magnesium. Calcium and magnesium also have a good effect on mental functioning.
Support from others. Devote some of your precious time to nurturing your personal relationships. Spend time with family and friends, and don’t hesitate to get help from a counsellor if you feel the need. Very often, all we need to release a build-up of pressure is a listening ear.
Reduce stress at work. Take a long, hard look at how you operate at work, and change it if necessary. Effective time management is essential. Organise and prioritise! Learn to delegate. Resolve to say ‘No’ if you feel that you are being overburdened. Communication is vital.
Relaxation techniques: As mentioned, stress management embraces a wide range of strategies and actions which address every aspect of our lives and it can be very helpful to incorporate one or more of the following relaxation techniques into your regular activities:
- Deep breathing
- Muscle relaxation
- Massage therapy
Conquer stress – a lifetime commitment
Sometimes it feels as though it’s just too much effort to put into place any of the stress-beating tactics outlined here. But that’s the stress talking! It will be hard to discipline yourself to exercise, to eat properly, to meditate every day or practise one of the other relaxation techniques mentioned, but once you get into a routine, you will find that the effort is more than repaid by the results!
Recommended Reading: “Proverbial Stress Management Busters” by Prof. L. Schlebusch. (Publisher: Human & Rosseau).
Courtesy of Medical Essentials, Health Information