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Stress can be broadly defined as an automatic physical response to events that make you feel threatened or that upset your balance in some way. While it helps you rise to meet challenges and allows you to stay energetic and alert, to continually be in this state means that the body’s chemicals are constantly being stimulated. At this point, stress stops being helpful and leads to imbalance, causing damage to your physical health, as well as your mood, relationships and productivity.

This section helps you better understand how the stress response works, as well as the different types of stress that exist. By finding healthy ways to manage and cope with stress as it occurs, it is possible to reduce many of its negative health consequences. The page Stress Management provides you with some healthy tips to help you relieve stress and stay in control of your life.

The stress response

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. At times of danger, the body's innate intelligence automatically takes charge by triggering a set of changes that bypass our rational thoughts. When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones awaken the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath accelerates, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

When working properly, stress helps you rise to meet challenges and allows you to stay focused, energetic, and alert. However, to continually be in this state means that the body chemicals associated with fight and flight are constantly being stimulated. At this point, stress stops being helpful and leads to imbalance, causing damage to your physical health, as well as your mood, relationships and productivity.

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According to the American Psychological Association , there are three types of stress – acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. A description of each is provided below:

  • Acute stress: Acute stress is the most common form of stress. It is your body's immediate reaction to a perceived threat, challenge or scare – also known as the fight-or-flight response. The acute stress response is intense and immediate, and can be caused by stressors such as going to a job interview or having a near-miss car accident. Acute stress can also be thrilling and energising, such as the experience you have when riding a roller coaster, or the rush you might get when getting dressed on your wedding day. A single episode of acute stress is short-lived and generally doesn't cause problems for healthy people.
  • Episodic acute stress: Episodic acute stress is a more serious type of acute stress, and is often more difficult to diagnose. It refers to a situation where life is constantly filled with one stressful event after another. People who suffer from this type of stress experience symptoms every day, not just once in awhile. In general, those who have episodic acute stress always seem to be in a hurry while seldom being on time, often take on too much and tend to have a never-ending to do list. People with episodic acute stress are generally described as having a lot of nervous energy. The symptoms of episodic acute stress are the symptoms of extended over arousal: persistent tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain and heart disease. Treating episodic acute stress involves intervention on a number of levels and often requires professional help, which may take many months.
  • Chronic stress: If acute stress isn't resolved, begins to increase or lasts for long periods of time, it becomes chronic stress. The chronic stress response is more subtle than is the acute stress response, but the effects may be longer lasting and more problematic. This is the grinding stress that wears people away day after day, year after year. It often occurs when a person never sees a way out of a difficult situation. The worst aspect of chronic stress is that those suffering from it can get used to it and forget it's there. While people are immediately aware of acute stress because it is new, they may ignore chronic stress because the effects are old and familiar. This persistent stress can lead to several health problems, such as chronic headaches, insomnia, heart disease or suicide. The symptoms of chronic stress are difficult to treat and may require extended medical as well as behavioural treatment and stress management.
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Below are some of the most common psychological, emotional, physical and behavioural symptoms of stress:

Psychological signs

  • Memory lapses and problems
  • Inability to concentrate or make simple decisions
  • Easily distracted
  • Constant worrying
  • Negative thinking
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Less intuitive & creative
  • Depression & anxiety
  • Emotional signs
  • Mood swings
  • Irritable or short temper
  • Extra sensitive to criticism
  • Defensive
  • Tearful
  • Feeling overwhelmed or out of control
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Lack of motivation
  • Angry or frustrated
  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of self-esteem
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness

Physical signs

  • Aches, pains and muscle tension, including grinding teeth
  • Frequent colds or infections
  • Chest pain or heart palpitations
  • Dizziness, nausea or panic attacks
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Allergies, rashes or skin irritations
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Menstrual changes, loss of sex drive or sexual problems
  • High blood pressure

Behavioural signs

  • Changes in appetite
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Increased reliance on alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to relax
  • Absenteeism
  • Self neglect
  • Social withdrawal
  • Insomnia or waking tired
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Prone to accidents, forgetfulness
  • Aggressive/anger outbursts
  • Nervous habits, such as nail biting or pacing

It is important to recognise the warning signs of stress early to prevent your stress from worsening and potentially causing other health problems. If you are experiencing some of the above symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor for a full evaluation. Your doctor can help you determine whether or not your symptoms are stress-related.

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If your doctor suspects that stress is the cause of psychological or physical symptoms and illness, he or she will ask you questions about your history and circumstances. This includes the identification of any stressors in your life, such as relationship or work problems. There are no specific medical tests for stress but your doctor can usually make the diagnosis from your symptoms, and using the information gained from your personal history.

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While everyone experiences stress at times, a prolonged bout of it can affect your health and ability to cope with life. Untreated chronic stress can lead to serious health complications including hypertension, insomnia, anxiety and a weakened immune system. However, by finding healthy ways to manage and cope with stress as it occurs, it is possible to reduce many of these negative health consequences.

Helpguide describes that the foundation of stress management is simply realising that you’re in control of your life. When faced with stressful events, they offer the four As: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept stressors – meaning, you can either change the situation or change your reaction to it.

Additionally, here are some health tips to help you relieve and manage stress:

  • Exercise regularly: Exercise benefits mind and body, and plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Even 30 minutes of physical activity can have a mood-lifting effect that lasts for several hours.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol: While drugs and alcohol may provide an easy escape from stress, in the long run they can create more problems and actually add to your stress.
  • Seek social support: After a stressful event, it is easy to isolate yourself but make sure that you spend time with loved ones. When you share your concerns or feelings with another person, it helps to relieve stress. But it’s important that the person you talk to is someone that you trust and with whom you feel can understand and validate you.
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet: Start your day right with a nutritious breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, healthy meals throughout the day. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress.
  • Sleep well: Being short of sleep will see your energy levels decline during the day, and is detrimental to your concentration and effectiveness. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body.
  • Reduce caffeine and sugar: The temporary highs caffeine and sugar provide often end with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, and sugary snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and will sleep better.
  • Set aside time for fun and relaxation: Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries. If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors when they inevitably come.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques help to slow your breathing and to focus your attention on the here and now. Common relaxation techniques include guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, or meditation.
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