From mounting pressures at work, to financial worries, or concerns around your health, there are myriad of ways stress can build, so it’s essential to address before things escalate. Our expert columnist Bhavna Raithatha explores how stress develops, and offers practical solutions to help manage the tensions in your life right now
Stress affects everyone, from young children to the elderly, as we live in an increasingly stressful world. People are expected to do, think, and give continuously. There is no time to stop and process how you feel about it, no time to rest and refuel. This perpetual motion leads to many different types of stress and, if left unchecked, can cause serious ill-health.
What is stress?
Stress is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. According to psychologist Dr Gillian Butler, in a paper published by The Royal College of General Practitioners, stress is defined in three ways:
- Stress resulting from pressure – the greater the pressure, the greater the likelihood of a person being affected.
- Stress as a response to noxious or aversive stimuli – for example the global response to the war in Ukraine.
- Individual differences, circumstances, coping mechanisms, resilience, and the interaction of internal and external factors affect how people respond to stress.
What causes stress?
Stress can be caused by a multitude of factors on their own, or when they interact with other factors in a person’s life. For example, being overstretched at work, home, or both, or ill-health leading to not being able to work, financial hardship, relationships, etc. This includes the impact of these events on a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem; individual experiences and reactions vary greatly.
Stress-reaction is also down to how an individual has learned to deal with stress in their lives. Learned helplessness is a result of defective or completely ineffective coping strategies, because this individual didn’t learn how to appropriately identify and respond to stress at a young age. When a person is exposed to large amounts of stress on a regular basis, they will experience a sense of disempowerment and accept their ‘fate’. This is often exacerbated by events out of the person’s control, combined with psychological fatigue.
How does the body respond?
The mind and body respond differently to various types of stress.
Emotional reactions may include:
- Withdrawal from day-to-day activities
- Anxiety, or panic attacks
- Burnout, in severe cases
Behavioural reactions may include:
- Engaging in or increasing addictive behaviours, such
as drinking, smoking, drugs, or sex
- Arguments or fights
- Withdrawing from work or relationships
- Changes in regular patterns, e.g. eating, drinking, sleeping
Cognitive reactions may include:
- Decreased attention
- Increased distractibility
- Irrational thinking
- Inabilities to function
The psychological face of stress
Endocrinologist Hans Selye proposed a stress reaction theory he called General Adaptation Syndrome. This theory stated that there are three distinct responses to a stressor:
- The body responds with an alarm reaction.
- This causes the release of adrenaline into the body to prepare for fight or flight.
- If the stress continues, the body becomes fatigued causing exhaustion, illness, an inability to cope.
Often, the body is able to deal with most stresses at ‘2’ and continues to function normally until the next episode of stress.
The most important approach in stress management is perhaps the most powerful, and that is to adopt the right attitude. Our thoughts create our realities, and so if we are able to become aware of our thoughts, we then have the power to change them.
There are many practical things you can do to address stress:
- Laughter – watch a good comedy, or get together with friends
- Get out in nature
- Talk it through with a therapist
- Eat well – help your body
- Sex, which has innumerable psychobiological benefits
- Try to improve your work-life balance
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For more information on overcoming stress or to find an experienced, qualified therapist, visit Counselling Directory.