Unfortunately, we all live with stress in our lives. Whether it is related to work, family, relationships, loss, finances... stress has a very real effect on the quality of our lives.
In fact, stress can negatively impact your health and how you handle every aspect of your life. Here, we explore the definition of stress and how it affects your body and mind. We also offer simple steps to help you manage stress and live a happier, stress-free life.
What is Stress?
Stress is our body’s natural reaction to a challenging or threatening situation, event or feeling that affects our physical, emotional and/or mental condition. Feeling stress is natural – and sometimes even helpful – to help us handle situations and experiences when we are threatened or under duress.
During this natural reaction to stress, called the “fight-or-flight” mechanism, our bodies increase production of adrenaline and energy. While necessary in certain situations, the increased production of adrenaline can result in long-term damage to all aspects of our health.
Stress in the Workplace
We spend so much time at work that work-related stress can dominate our lives. You might have an abusive boss, uncooperative coworkers, a traffic-filled commute, a hazardous job environment, or a demanding workload. All these situations contribute to stress.
When you combine work stress with personal stress, you can develop anxieties that lead to depression.
Workplace stress can negatively impact your performance in many ways, including:
- Poor time management
- Strained interactions and relationships
- Lack of focus
The mental exhaustion caused by stress can interfere with your ability to learn, analyze and perform physical tasks. Anything requiring concentration becomes difficult as you are unable to focus. This can result in costly mistakes, and in some cases, accidents that can prove fatal.
How Can I Reduce Stress?
When focusing on ways to reduce stress, the first step is to identify the cause of your stress. In some cases, it might be obvious, such as your job, a sick loved one, financial troubles, or marriage issues.
If you know you are under stress but can’t pinpoint the cause, do a quick assessment. Consider what events take place, where you are and who you are with when symptoms of stress hit you the hardest. Keep a diary and include your thoughts and feelings at the time. You can then use this to look for patterns so that you can narrow down the possible sources of your stress.
Have a Plan
Once you know the cause of your stress, look at opportunities to avoid these situations. If it is work, can you take steps to lessen your workload? Can you start looking for a new job? Can you speak to your boss? Try readjusting your attitude about the challenges in your life. And more importantly, stop being hard on yourself.
Assess Your Commitments
Be reasonable about what you can and cannot do. Make a list of all the things you have committed to and prioritize every task. Remove anything that is not necessary. Then handle your tasks in order of importance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your partner, children, or other people in your life.
Speak to Someone
Reach out to people you trust and tell them what is happening. They will be able to provide advice and offer to help. They can also help put things in perspective so you can accurately see the situation, good or bad. If you don’t have a friend or loved one to consult, consider asking your doctor for a referral to someone who can help you manage your stress.
Lose Poisonous People
It can be hard to look at the people in your life and decide to cut someone out. But toxic relationships can add to your stress. These bad relationships may include people who are excessively negative or constantly making demands of you.
Build Positive Relationships
While some relationships breed toxicity, others can help you through stressful times. Strong relationships with people who make you happy can greatly reduce your stress. These people provide support and can help you through tough times by being there to listen. People who genuinely care are willing to help their friends, coworkers or family.
Manage Stress as It Comes
Learn how to handle stress as it comes. When you learn to recognize warning signs, you can be prepared to manage the situation. Whether you feel exhausted or ill, get headaches, or become moody, recognize the signs so that you can work on calming yourself.
Next, try to identify the cause and determine the level of stress:
- Is it something with a practical solution? If so, handle it and move on.
- Is it something that will improve over time? If so, focus on the end result so you can manage until it passes.
- Is it something you have no control over? If so, accept this and move on.
Prevent and Manage Stress
You are always in a position to take control. Learn to manage your stress and even prevent it. Try making these life changes to improve your sense of well-being:
- Healthy diet: The healthier your diet, the better you will feel both mentally and physically. Improve your mood with fresh, unprocessed foods and a good balance of brain nutrients, such as essential vitamins and minerals.
- Quit bad habits: You might be inclined to light up a cigarette or have a drink when you are feeling stressed. But these habits can worsen your problems. The less you smoke and drink, the better you will feel.
- Get more exercise: Physical activity can be a very effective way to reduce stress. The combination of exercise and fresh air provide a boost to your mood and help you feel better.
- Relax: So many of us function on autopilot without taking any time for ourselves. You need to find time to relax in order to reduce stress. Self-care is one of the most important aspects of promoting strong mental health.
Improve Your Sleep Habits
Unfortunately, sleeplessness and stress go hand in hand. Improve your sleep habits with these tips:
- Remove or turn off all gadgets and technology in your bedroom. The blue screens suppress the production of melatonin, which is essential to sleep. Experts recommend powering down devices two hours before bedtime. This includes your smartphone, TV, laptop and/or tablet.
- Manage health issues that can interfere with sleep, such as pain, a stuffed nose, or headaches. Speak to your doctor if chronic issues are causing trouble sleeping.
- Your room should be as dark as possible, noise-free, and at a comfortable temperature. If you need to, try wearing an eye mask and earplugs to help you sleep.
- Use mindfulness and other progressive relaxation techniques to stop your mind from racing.
- Avoid food and drink containing caffeine or alcohol. Instead choose foods that increase sleepiness such as oats, rice, and dairy.
- Exercise earlier in the day as adrenaline from working out can keep you awake.
- Don’t nap during the day or too close to bedtime.
- If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and read until you feel sleepier. Otherwise, you may get stressed and never fall asleep.
Mindfulness allows you to remain focused on the here and now. It helps you to pay attention to what you are thinking and feeling so you can manage stressful situations more effectively. Mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety and improve concentration. You can practice these techniques every day, so you are better equipped to live life happily.
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What are the Symptoms of Stress?
As we mentioned earlier, stress can affect all aspects of our health: physical, emotional and mental. Knowing the signs of stress is beneficial to taking a proactive approach to minimizing or managing stress and improving your overall health and happiness.
Below are common symptoms associated with stress, all of which can vary based on the individual.
Physical Signs of Stress
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Stress sweat or excessive sweating
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire or ability
- Nervousness and shaking
- Ringing in the ears
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Emotional Signs of Stress
- Short temper
- A constant feeling of being overwhelmed
- A feeling you are losing control or want to take control
- A racing mind
- Low self-esteem
- Wanting to avoid others
Cognitive Signs of Stress
- Constant worrying
- Racing thoughts
- Forgetfulness and disorganization
- Inability to focus
- Poor judgment
- Being pessimistic
What is Stress Sweat?
Everybody sweats. We all produce different amounts of sweat and under varied conditions. Sweat from heat or exertion is a clear and watery substance. Produced by eccrine glands to cool our bodies, this type of sweat does not produce odor.
Yet stress sweat occurs as a direct result of a stressful situation. It is produced by apocrine sweat glands, located in your underarms, groin and feet. Unlike the sweat produced by eccrine glands, stress sweat is thick and foul smelling. It contains lipids and proteins that attract bacteria. That is why people often use the term “you could smell the fear.”
If you frequently sweat or suffer from hyperhidrosis, the addition of stress sweat can be embarrassing. Common causes of stress sweat include:
- Public speaking and making presentations
- Job interviews
- Intimate relationships
- Pressure to perform
- Sudden panic and anxiety
- Social engagements
- Running late
Stress is a real problem that should be acknowledged and acted on right away. Identifying sources of stress and learning to manage stressors in your life will help you avoid its negative effects on your mind, body, and soul.
The Science Behind the Stress
It might seem the term “stress” has always existed. But when it comes to mental stress, it has only been used since the 1930s. Endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye coined the phrase while performing tests on animals exposed to unpleasant stimuli. He found the animals displayed the same negative reactions to the stimuli. They first experienced alarm, followed by resistance as their bodies tried to cope with the threat. And finally, they exhibited exhaustion as they were forced to sustain the stress.
Dr. Selye’s tests showed that during the exhaustion phase, when the animals were exposed to sustained stress, they were unable to maintain normal function. Exposure to long-term stress also caused longstanding damage to the adrenal glands and the immune system of the subject. All these factors lead to depression, as well as mental and cardiovascular issues.
We can further understand our relationship to stress by considering that humans and animals both share the fight-or-flight mechanism, the natural reaction to being threatened. The fight-or-flight mechanism generates the adrenaline and energy required to run or fight when we sense peril. This was a necessity in the early days of man when faced with the potential attack of a wild animal or enemy.
Today, the chances of being attacked by a wild animal have decreased dramatically, while psychological stress continues to rise. Yet our natural instincts of fight or flight remain. Our bodies have the same reaction to psychological stress as we do when we are in physical danger. So, when we experience stress on a daily basis, our bodies continue to produce adrenaline. This adrenaline production causes the same type of long-term damage that Dr. Selye discovered in his animals.
What Happens to Our Bodies Under Stress?
When faced with psychological stress or bodily threat, we quickly assess the situation and determine if our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) needs to kick in. If we decide yes, then our bodies increase our heart and respiration rates within seconds. This process is called a threat appraisal.
During the threat appraisal, signals are sent through the adrenal glands, causing that familiar adrenaline rush as epinephrine is pushed into our bloodstream and begins to circulate. Your heartbeat and blood pressure rise, you breathe rapidly, and you sweat more and experience increased energy. All of this happens almost simultaneously to provide a lightning-fast flight instinct that allows you to avoid danger.
There’s a second stage following this surge of adrenaline, which is called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. If it is determined that danger persists, this reaction will accelerate the system, leading to the release of cortisol, keeping you hyped up. Once it is determined the threat is over, the parasympathetic nervous system slows your stress response.
What Happens to Our Minds Under Stress?
Once the stress reaction begins, and we activate our HPA axis, we release the hormone cortisol to the areas of the brain that are responsible for the cognitive process. Everyone will react differently based on their own perception of the situation and their ability to handle it. Even when faced with performing a task, if you feel you lack the resources to be effective or able to complete the task at hand, this will increase your distress response.
The study above looked at the effects of stress on healthcare providers who are constantly exposed to crises. They found many challenges, including:
Attention: When under stress, it forces us to become selective in our attention. We will shut out information so that we can focus on what we are doing. That is a good thing. However, should there be distractions, such as loud noises or other perceived threats, they will take away from the task at hand and be disruptive.
Memory: The effects of stress on the mind vary based on the components of memory. These components are working memory, memory consolidation, and memory retrieval. High levels of stress were shown to impair working memory, the collection and use of information as we perform tasks, as well as the retrieval of information from our saved memories. Interestingly, stress seems to enhance memory consolidation, the process when we are saving memories permanently.
- Decisions: Stress leads to hypervigilant decision-making. This process is a more impulsive and disorganized way to consider information. Your mind is being selective and limiting alternative solutions, which can lead to poor performance when decision-making is not performing optimally.
Impact of Stress
There have been many studies on stress and the mind. According to a recent study on the effect of stress on total body function, memory can either improve or worsen based on the source of the stress and how long the stress is imposed.
The study also found that mild stress can improve cognitive function, while intense stress can be so bad it causes cognitive disorders. These disorders most commonly affected memory and judgment due to the disruptions of stress on the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. All of these effects were strongly based on the individual and their perception of the stress.
Emotional vs. Cognitive
When it comes to the mind, stress can affect us both emotionally and cognitively. The difference between the two is that emotion is what we feel, while cognition is what we think. There is a strong relationship between feeling and thinking, and both contribute to our state of mind and how we react and behave. Symptoms of stress can appear in how we react emotionally as well as how we are able to work and problem solve.
How Does Stress Affect Our Health?
The aforementioned study also found profound negative effects on health. The severity of these conditions and effects were related to the amount of time under stress, type of stress, and severity of the stress. The complications of the disease or condition ranged from mild to the potential for death.
It was found that those exposed to stress often, such as high-stress jobs, are at higher risk for these disorders. Stress was also shown to both trigger symptoms and contribute to health issues. Some of the most notable effects of stress included:
There has long been a belief that there is a direct relationship between stress and the immune system. Studies show that when under stress, we are more likely to have issues with our immune system and become more vulnerable to frequent illness. It is also believed that severe stress can lead to malignancy because it suppresses the immune system and other functions designed to stop bad cells from forming.
The study also found an association between stress and cardiovascular disease. Acute and chronic stress has a poisonous effect on the cardiovascular system due to the additional stimulation and the inhibition of proper function. Increased heart rate and oxygen demand enhances coronary vasoconstriction, increasing the risk for heart attack.
Adding to the risk, being under constant stress can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, and drug abuse. Many of these habits add to unwanted stimulation of the autonomic nervous system, further enhancing the ill effects. In fact, severe stress has been known to cause sudden death when it becomes too much for the body to bear.
The same study found two strong effects of stress on the gastrointestinal (GI) system:
Appetite: Stress can affect your appetite, leading to health issues. As well, a lack of proper nutrition can cause stress on your body.
- GI Function: Stress affects GI function, including the absorption process, stomach acids, and inflammation. Stress increases the risk for GI inflammatory diseases and reactivates conditions such as colitis and Crohn’s disease. Ulcerative-based diseases of the GI tract have been linked to stress. And childhood stress can cause health issues in adulthood. Irritable bowel syndrome is another common example of a stress-related inflammatory disorder.