“Stress is like spice – in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you”
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Stress is ubiquitous! It may be viewed as detrimental as well as beneficial. For instance, job loss, relationship discord, chronic illness, conflict with a work supervisor, being in a major traffic accident may be considered the former while the latter may be stress that motivates an individual to study, to fight for justice and compete in a football game. And according to National Institute of Mental Health, “Stress can even be life-saving in some situations. In response to danger, your body prepares to face a threat or flee to safety. In these situations, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival.”
The English Oxford Dictionary provides a number of definitions of stress, one of which is: “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” It may be categorized as acute (short-lived), episodic (acute stress frequently experienced) or chronic (long-term). According to the National Institute of Mental Health:
Health problems can occur if the stress response goes on for too long or becomes chronic, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided. With chronic stress, those same life-saving responses in your body can suppress immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems, which may cause them to stop working normally.
Different people may feel stress in different ways. For example, some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger or irritability.
People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold. Routine stress may be the hardest type of stress 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 contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, as well as mental disorders like and .
Two psychiatrists (Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe) in the 1960’s were interested in the effects of stress on adults that frequently occurs before the beginning of an illness. This resulted in developing a scale (known as the The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory or Social Readjustment Rating Scale) applying a value for 43 life events, each with an assigned specific number and then tallying the total number for the past year. The resulting score can fall into 3 categories specifying the percentage of having a health risk. The 5 life events with the highest value in descending order are: death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, jail term, death of a close family member. (For the rest of the list, number assigned on each event and interpretation of score, please see ). There is research supporting the validity of life events linking to health illness.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Common reactions to a stressful event can include:
- Disbelief, shock, and numbness
- Feeling sad, frustrated, and helpless
- Fear and anxiety about the future
- Feeling guilty
- Anger, tension, and irritability
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Reduced interest in usual activities
- Wanting to be alone
- Loss of appetite
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Nightmares or bad memories
- Reoccurring thoughts of the event
- Headaches, back pains, and stomach problems
- Increased heart rate, difficulty breathing
- Smoking or use of alcohol or drugs
How stress is managed depends upon the individual. It may be possible to eliminate the stressor or reduce its impact. There are ways to cope with stress such as reaching out to others for emotional support, talking about problems, exercising (with permission of a physician if health problems exists), prioritizing tasks, relaxing activities (e.g., deep breathing exercise, yoga, meditation), journal writing, getting enough sleep, reduce the number of obligations when possible, proper nutrition (instead of reaching for junk food) and not skipping meals, self-care. What works for one person may not for the other. Remember, stress is everywhere. The key is to learn to respond, rather than react to a given situation. If already succumbing to stress, then it is important to be aware of the signs of its negative impact (e.g. headaches, muscle tension, social isolation) and then work on relieving it. The following quote is attributed to William James, an American philosopher and psychologist: "The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another." Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, (CBT), a type of counseling, may be particularly helpful with this. CBT recognizes that one’s feelings and behaviors are largely influenced by one’s thought(s). The thought(s) regarding the stress may be identified and changed to promote a healthier emotional state and improve functioning by substituting a response for the reaction. It may also be used to prevent a reaction! Skills aquired in this type of therapy may be utilized throughout life in dealing with a host of issues/problems (e.g., relationships, anger, parenting, job concerns, sexuality, abuse, alcohol and drugs, depression, anxiety).
If there is difficulty in coping , functioning (at home/school/job) or managing stress, feeling overwhelmed or stress is having a negative impact on physical or emotional well-being, contacting a licensed mental health professional may help.
Please be aware that turning to alcohol and drugs (which also includes nicotine) to cope with stress may eventually add more stress and create problems!
For more information about stress, please click on the following sources:
This article was written some time between January 1, 2016 and January 22, 2019.