Stress is experienced when there is an imbalance between the demands being made on us and our resources to cope with those demands. It is a natural human response to pressure when faced with challenging and sometimes dangerous situations. That pressure is not only about what’s happening around us, but often also about demands we place on ourselves. Thus, the level and extent of stress a person may feel depends largely on their attitude to a particular situation. An event which may be extremely stressful for one person may not be in another person’s life.
Many things can trigger this stress response, including change. Changes can be positive or negative, as well as recurring, short-term, or long-term. Changes can be mild and relatively harmless, such as winning a race or watching a scary movie. Some changes are major, such as marriage or divorce, serious illness, or a car accident. Other changes are extreme, such as exposure to violence, and can lead to traumatic stress reactions.
HOW DOES STRESS AFFECT THE BODY?
All animals have a stress response, which can be life-saving in some situations. The nerve chemicals and hormones released during such stressful times, prepares the animal to face a threat or flee to safety (fight or flight). When you face a dangerous situation, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity – all functions aimed at survival. In the short term it can even boost your immune system.
However, with chronic stress, those same nerve chemicals that are life-saving in short bursts can suppress functions that aren't needed for immediate survival. Your immunity is lowered and your digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems stop working normally. Once the threat has passed, other body systems act to restore normal functioning. Problems occur if the stress response goes on too long, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided.
HOW DOES STRESS AFFECT OVERALL HEALTH?
As a clinical problem, stress occurs when the demands made on a person exceed (or they feel they exceed) their ability to cope. There are at least three different types of stress, all of which carry physical and mental health risks:
* Routine stress related to the pressures of work, family and other daily responsibilities.
* Stress brought about by a sudden negative change, such as losing a job, divorce, or illness.
* Traumatic stress, experienced in an event like a major accident, war, assault, or a natural disaster where one may be seriously hurt or in danger of being killed.
The body responds to each type of stress in similar ways. Different people may feel it in different ways. For example, some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, depressed mood, anger and irritability. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold, and vaccines, such as the flu shot, are less effective for them.
Of all the types of stress, changes in health from routine stress may be hardest to notice at first. Because the source of stress tends to be more constant than in cases of acute or traumatic stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorder, and other illnesses.
HOW TO COPE WITH STRESS:
The effects of stress tend to build up over time. Taking practical steps to maintain your health and outlook can reduce or prevent these effects.
Exercise regularly – Regular exercise is a great way to boost your mood and manage stress. Have at least 20 minutes of exercise three times a week. Even explore stress coping programs, such as meditation, yoga, ta chi or other gentle exercises.
Avoid conflict – avoid situations that make you feel stressed as much as you can. Avoid unnecessary arguments and conflict if you find them stressful (although ignoring a problem is not always the best way to reduce stress). Assertiveness is fine but becoming distressed is not.
Relax – Make sure you give yourself some time to relax each day and try to spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself.
Eat well – A nutritious diet is important. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and avoid sweet and fatty foods.
Sleep – A good sleep routine is essential, so do something calm and relaxing before you go to bed like listening to music or reading if you have difficulty falling asleep.
Be Positive – Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do
Set Priorities – Decide what must get done and what can wait. Learn to say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload. Avoid dwelling on problems.
Support – Stay in touch with people who can provide emotional and other support.
Seek Help – If you are feeling overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts or are using drugs or alcohol to cope, seek help from a qualified mental health care provider. Get proper health care for new or existing health problems.