“I’m so stressed out!” (Stress, Health, and Coping)
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your to-do list appears to be unlimited, due dates are quick, drawing nearer and you end up saying ‘Eek! I’m so stressed out!’? But what is stress really, and how does it affect us?
What is Stress?
If you were to ask twelve individuals to define stress, you would likely get 12 different answers to your request. The reason for this is that there is no definition of stress that everyone concedes to, what is distressing for one individual might be pleasurable or have little impact on others and we all react to stress differently. Stress refers to experiencing events that are perceived as endangering one’s physical or psychological well-being. These events are usually referred to as stressors, and people’s reactions to them are termed stress responses.
Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, your body responds as though you are in danger, it releases a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These chemicals speed up your heart, make you breathe faster, and give you a burst of energy. This energy and strength can be a good thing if stress is caused by physical danger. But this can also be a bad thing if stress is in response to something emotional and there is no outlet for this extra energy and strength.
Causes of Stress
Countless events cause stress. Some are major changes affecting a large number of people – events such as war, nuclear accidents, and earthquakes. Others are major changes in the life of an individual – for instance, moving to a new area, changing jobs, getting married, losing a friend suffering a serious illness. Everyday hassles can also be experienced as stressors – getting stuck in traffic, arguing with a professor, losing your wallet. They only last a short time. Other stressors are chronic: They go on for an extended period, even indefinitely, as when you are in an unsatisfying marriage. Over time, chronic stress can lead to severe health problems. Finally, the source of stress can also be within the individual, in the form of conflicting motives and desires.
Events that are perceived as stressful usually fall into one or more of the following categories; of course, the degree to which an event is stressful differs for each individual:
- Traumatic Events: The most obvious sources of stress are traumatic events – situations of extreme danger that are outside the range of usual human experience.
- Uncontrollable Events: The more uncontrollable an event seems, the more likely it is to be perceived as stressful. Major uncontrollable events include the death of a loved one etc. Minor uncontrollable events include such things as having a friend refuse to accept your apology for some misdeed etc.
- Unpredictable Events: Unpredictable events are also often perceived as stressful. The degree to which we know if and when an event will occur – also affects its stressfulness. Being able to predict the occurrence of a stressful event – even if the individual cannot control it – usually reduces the severity of the stress.
- Events that represent major changes in life circumstances: Any life change that requires numerous readjustments can be perceived as stressful. The following scale by Holmes and Rahe ranks life events from most stressful to least stressful:
- Internal Conflicts: stress can also be brought about by internal conflicts – unresolved issues that may be either conscious or unconscious. Conflict occurs when a person must choose between incompatible or mutually exclusive goals or courses. Many of the things people desire prove to be incompatible, hence causing stress.
Conflicts may also arise when two inner needs or motives are in opposition. In our society, the conflicts that are most pervasive and difficult to resolve generally occur between the following motives:
Independence vs Dependence: Particularly when we are faced with a difficult situation, we may want someone to take care of us and solve our problems. But we are taught that we must stand on our own. At other times we may wish for independence, but circumstances force us to remain dependent.
Intimacy vs Isolation: The desire to be close to another person and to share our innermost thoughts and emotions may conflict with the fear of being hurt or rejected if we expose too much of ourselves.
Cooperation vs Competition: Our society emphasizes competition and success. Competition begins in early childhood among siblings, continues through school, and culminates in business and professional rivalry. At the same time, we are urged to cooperate and help others.
Expression of Impulses vs Moral Standards: Impulses must be regulated to some degree in all societies. Much of childhood learning involves internalizing cultural restrictions on impulses. Sex and aggression are two areas in which our impulses frequently come into conflict with moral standards and violation of these standards can generate feelings of guilt.
These four areas present the greatest potential for serious conflict. Trying to find a workable compromise between opposing motives can create considerable stress.
Health: Signs and symptoms of stress overload
The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar — even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Anxiety and agitation
- Moodiness, irritability, or anger
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loneliness and isolation
- Other mental or emotional health problems
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heart rate
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds or flu
- Eating more or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
Psychological Reactions to Stress:
Stressful situations produce emotional reactions ranging from exhilaration to anxiety, anger, discouragement, and depression.
The most common response to the stressor is anxiety. People who live through events that are beyond the normal range of human suffering (rape, kidnapping) sometimes develop a severe set of anxiety-related symptoms known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There are four sets of symptoms of PTSD. The first set represents a deep detachment from everyday life. The second set is a repeated reliving of the trauma. The third set of symptoms includes sleep disturbances, difficulty in concentrating, and over-alertness. Another symptom of PTSD besides these three core sets is the survivor of guilt – some people feel terribly guilty about surviving trauma.
Traumas caused by humans, such as sexual or physical assault, are more likely to cause PTSD than natural disasters.
Anger and Aggression
Another common reaction to a stressful situation is anger, which may lead to aggression. People often become angry and exhibit aggressive behavior when they experience frustration.
Apathy and Depression
Although aggression is a frequent response to stress, the opposite response, withdrawal, and apathy, is also common. If the stressful conditions continue and the individual is unable to cope with them, apathy may deepen into depression. Some people suffering from apathy or depression develop learned helplessness, which is characterized by passivity and inaction and an inability to see opportunities to control their environment. For example, women whose husbands beat them frequently may not try to escape.
Cognitive Reaction to Stress
In addition to emotional reactions, people often show substantial cognitive impairment when faced with serious stressors. They find it hard to concentrate and organize their thought logically. They may be easily distracted. They may be easily distracted. As a result, their performance on tasks, particularly complex tasks, tend to deteriorate.
Physiological Reactions to Stress
The body reacts to stressors by initiating a complex sequence of responses. If the perceived threat is resolved quickly, these emergency responses subside, but if the stressful situation continues, a different set of internal responses occur as we attempt to adopt.
Fight-or-flight response: what happens in the body?
The body reacts to stress with the fight-or-flight response. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus—preparing you for either fight or flee from the danger at hand.
How does stress affect health?
The attempts to adapt to the continued presence of stressors may deplete the body’s resources and make it vulnerable to illness.
Chronic stress can lead to physical disorders such as ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It may also impair the immune system, decreasing the body’s ability to fight invading bacteria and viruses. Indeed, doctors estimate that emotional stress plays an important role in more than half of all medical problems.
When we are stressed we are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, and this may lead to illness. Engaging in unhealthy behaviors may also increase a person’s subjective sense of stress. People under stress cease normal exercise routines. Excessive drinking or smoking may also induce lethargy, fatigue, and a mild or moderate sense of depression that makes it difficult to overcome stressful situations or just keep up with the demands of everyday life. Similarly, people who do not get enough sleep show impairments in memory, learning, logical reasoning, arithmetic skills, complex verbal processing, and decision making.
The emotions and physiological arousal created by stressful situations are highly uncomfortable, and this discomfort motivates the individual to do something to alleviate it. The term coping is used to refer to the process by which a person attempts to manage stressful demands, and it takes two major forms.
A person can focus on the specific problem or situation that has arisen, trying to find some way of changing it or avoiding it in the future. This is called problem-focused coping. Problem-focused strategies aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stressor.
There are many strategies for solving problems. First, you must define the problem. Then you can generate alternate solutions and weigh the costs and benefits of the alternatives. Eventually, you must choose between alternative solutions and then act upon your choice. Problem-focused strategies can also be directed inward: You can change something about yourself instead of changing the environment. You can change your goals, find alternative sources of gratification, or learn new skills in inward direct strategies. How skillfully people employ these strategies depends on their range of experiences and capacity for self-control.
A person can also focus on alleviating the emotions associated with the stressful situation, even if the situation itself cannot be changed. This is called emotion-focused coping. People engage in emotion-focused coping to prevent their negative emotions from overwhelming them and making them unable to take action to solve their problems. They also use emotion-focused coping when a problem is uncontrollable.
We try to cope with our negative emotions in many ways. Some researchers have divided these into behavioral strategies and cognitive strategies. Behavioral strategies include engaging in physical exercise, using drugs, venting anger, and seeking emotional support from friends. Cognitive strategies include temporarily setting the problem aside (“I decided it wasn’t worth worrying about”) and reducing the threat by changing the meaning of the situation (“I decided that her friendship wasn’t that important to me”). Cognitive strategies often involve reappraising the situation. Obviously, we would expect some behavioral and cognitive strategies to be adaptive and others (such as drinking heavily) to merely cause more stress.
One strategy that appears to help people adjust emotionally and physically to a stressor is seeking emotional support from others. The quality of social support a person receives after experiencing a trauma strongly influences the impact of that support on the individual’s health. Conflicted social relationships may affect physical health through the immune system.
Some people engage in the more maladaptive way of coping with negative emotions: They simply deny that they have any negative emotions and push those emotions out of conscious awareness, a strategy known as repressive coping. People who engage in repressive coping tend to show more autonomic nervous activity in response to stressors than people who do not engage in repressive coping. Repressing important aspects of one’s identity may also be harmful to one’s health.
In contrast, talking about negative emotions and important issues in one’s life appears to have positive effects on health. Studies show that encouraging people to reveal personal traumas in diaries or essays improves their health. Writing is helpful because it assists people in finding meaning in the events that happen to them and helps them understand them. Finding meaning and understanding then reduces the negative emotions people feel about events and may, therefore, reduce the physiological wear and tear associated with chronic negative emotions.
People who use rumination or avoidance strategies to cope with negative emotions show longer and more severe distress after negative events than people who seek social support or reappraise an event to cope with their emotions.
However, A meta-analysis revealed that emotion-focused strategies are often less effective than using problem-focused methods in relation to health outcomes. People who take active steps to solve problems are less likely to experience depression and illness following negative life events.
How to Manage Stress?
In addition to seeking positive social support in times of stress, people can also learn other techniques to reduce the negative effect of stress on the body and the mind. Following are some behavioral and cognitive techniques to manage stress:
Among the behavioral techniques that help people control their psychological responses to stressful situations are biofeedback, relaxation training, meditation, and aerobic exercise.
Biofeedback: In biofeedback training, individuals receive information about an aspect of their physiological state and then attempt to alter that state. For example, in a procedure for learning to control tension headaches, electrodes are attached to the participant’s forehead so that any movement in the forehead muscle can be electronically detected, amplified, and fed back to the person as an auditory signal. The signal, or tone increases in pitch when the muscle contracts and decreases when it relaxes. By learning to control the pitch of the tone, the individual learns to keep the muscles relaxed. After 4 to 8 weeks of biofeedback training, the participant learns to recognize the onset of tension and to reduce it without feedback from the machine.
Relaxation Training: Relaxation training involves teaching people techniques to deeply relax their muscles and slow down and focus their thoughts. Physiological processes that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, such as heart rate and blood pressure, have traditionally been assumed to be automatic and not under voluntary control. However, laboratory studies have demonstrated that people can learn to modify heart rate and blood pressure. The results of these studies have led to relaxation procedures for treating patients with high blood pressure (hypertension).
Reviews of numerous studies using biofeedback and relaxation training to control headaches and hypertension conclude that the most important variable is learning how to relax. Some people may learn to relax faster when they receive biofeedback. Others may learn to relax equally well when they receive training in muscle relaxation without any specific biofeedback. The usefulness of relaxation training seems to depend on the individual. Best of all, anyone can reap these benefits with regular practice.
Meditation: Meditation can wipe away the day’s stress, bringing with it inner peace. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. Meditation originally was meant to help deepen understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life. These days, meditation is commonly used for relaxation and stress reduction. It is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine. It can produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind.
During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. This process may result in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.
However, a leading researcher in this field contends that the same effects can be achieved through simple rest. Resting may produce stress-reduction effects similar to those produced by meditation.
Exercise: Another factor that is important in controlling stress is physical fitness. Individuals who regularly engage in aerobic exercise show significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure in response to stressful situations than others. Physically fit people are much less likely to become physically ill following stressful events than people who are not fit.
An additional approach to stress management focuses on changing the individual’s cognitive response to stressful situations. Cognitive-behavioral therapists use cognitive techniques to help people reduce their stress and deal with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a short-term therapy that focuses on how people’s thoughts affect their emotions and behaviors. Understanding this concept helps people learn how to combat negative thinking and decrease stress.
Biofeedback, relaxation training, exercise, meditation, and cognitive therapy have all proved useful in helping people control their physiological and emotional responses to stress.
Finally, Techniques for stress management can also be gained from self-help books, online resources, or by attending a stress management course. A counselor or psychotherapist can connect an individual who has stress with personal development courses or individual and group therapy sessions. ALL THE BEST!
“Happiness is a choice. You can choose to be happy. There’s going to be stress in life, but it’s your choice whether you let it affect you or not.”
This is all about stress. We hope you find this article beneficial. 🙂