Hans Selye, M.D., a recognized expert in the field, has defined stress as a “nonspecific response of the body to a demand.”
Without stress, life would be dull and unexciting. Stress adds flavor, challenge and opportunity to life. Too much stress, however, can seriously affect your physical and mental well-being. A major challenge in today’s stress-filled world is to make the stress in your life work for you instead of against you.
During a stressful situation, the brain signals the release of stress hormones. These chemical substances trigger a series of responses that gives the body extra energy: blood-sugar levels rise, the heartbeat speeds up and blood pressure increases. The muscles tense for action. The blood supply is diverted away from the gut to the extremities to help the body deal with the situation at hand.
Stress is with us all the time. It comes from mental or emotional activity, as well as physical activity. It is unique and personal to each of us. So personal, in fact, that what may be relaxing to one person may be stressful to another. For example, if you are an executive who likes to keep busy all the time, “taking it easy” at the beach on a beautiful day may feel extremely frustrating, nonproductive and upsetting. You may be emotionally distressed from “doing nothing.”
Too much emotional stress can cause physical illness, such as high blood pressure, ulcers or even heart disease. Physical stress from work or exercise is not likely to cause such ailments.
The important issue is learning how our bodies respond to these demands. When stress becomes prolonged or particularly frustrating, it can become harmful - causing distress or “bad stress.” Recognizing the early signs of distress and then doing something about them can make an important difference in the quality of your life and may actually influence your survival.
Stress and Disease
Because the stress response couples physiological and emotional responses, it seems probable that stress can translate frustration into physical illness, but the precise mechanisms by which this occurs are not known. In some situations, as with tension headaches or upset stomachs, the connections appear fairly clear. On the other hand, both headaches and bellyaches can occur with no emotional provocation whatsoever.
The chain of causation is even less clear when it comes to more chronic and serious conditions, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and cancer. The list of diseases linked to stress is almost endless, and includes asthma, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcers, ulcerative colitis and migraine headaches, among many others.
An important distinction that needs to be made. Any of these chronic illnesses can be made harder to bear by a stress-laden situation or an emotionally inadequate response on the part of the patient. On the other hand, it is no longer possible to credit older theories that specific emotional experiences or reactions actually cause these various diseases. On the whole, it seems most likely that stress plays a non-specific role in disease by throwing off the body’s natural ability to heal itself.
Are there any tests to determine the cause of the stress?
If untreated, could the stress cause a more serious condition to occur?
Should a psychiatrist or psychologist be consulted?
Could the stress be caused by a chemical imbalance?
Would you recommend prescription drugs or therapy groups?
Should stressful situations be avoided?
When stress occurs, it is important to recognize and deal with it. Here are some suggestions for ways to handle stress. As you begin to understand more about how stress affects you as an individual, you will come up with your own ideas on how to ease the tension.
Try physical activity. When you are nervous, angry or upset, release the pressure through exercise or physical activity. Running, walking, playing tennis or working in your garden, are just some of the activities you might try. Physical exercise will relieve that “up tight” feeling, relax you, and turn the frowns into smiles. Remember, your body and your mind work together.
Share your stress. It helps to talk to someone about your concerns and worries. Perhaps a friend, family member, teacher or counselor, can help you see your problem in a different light. If you feel your problem is serious, you might seek professional help from a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker. Knowing when to ask for help may help to avoid more serious problems later.
Know your limits. If a problem is beyond your control and cannot be changed at the moment, don’t fight the situation. Learn to accept what is for now, until such time when you can change it.
Take care of yourself. You are special. Get enough rest and eat well. If you are irritable and tense from lack of sleep, or if you are not eating correctly, you will have less ability to deal with stressful situations. If stress repeatedly keeps you from sleeping, you should ask your doctor for help.
Make time for fun. Schedule time for both work and recreation. Play can be just as important to your well-being as work; you need a break from your daily routine to just relax and have fun.
Be a participant. One way to keep from getting bored, sad, and lonely is to go where it’s all happening. Sitting alone can make you feel frustrated. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, get involved. Offer your services to a neighborhood or volunteer organizations. Help yourself by helping other people. Get involved in the world and the people around you, and you will find they will be attracted to you. You’re on your way to making new friends and enjoying new activities.
Check off your tasks. Trying to take care of everything at once can seem overwhelming, and as a result, you may not accomplish anything. Instead, make a list of what tasks you have to do and do them one at a time, checking them off as they’re completed. Give priority to the most important ones and do those first.
Must you always be right? Do other people upset you - particularly when they don’t do things your way? Try cooperation instead of confrontation; it’s better than fighting and always being “right.” A little give and take on both sides will reduce the strain and make you both feel more comfortable.
It’s OK to cry. A good cry can be a healthy way to bring relief to your anxiety, and it might even prevent a headache or other physical consequence. Take some deep breaths; they also release tension.
Create a quiet scene. You can’t always get away, but you can “dream the impossible dream.” A quiet country scene, painted mentally or on canvas, can take you out of the turmoil of a stressful situation. Change the scene by reading a good book or playing beautiful music to create a sense of peace and tranquillity.
Avoid self-medication. Although you can use drugs to relieve stress temporarily, drugs do not remove the conditions that caused the stress in the first place. Drugs, in fact, may be habit-forming and create more stress than they relieve. They should be taken only on the advice of your doctor.
The best strategy for avoiding stress is to learn how to relax. Unfortunately, many people try to relax at the same pace that they lead the rest of their lives. For a while, tune out your worries about time, productivity, and “doing it right.” You will find satisfaction in just being, without striving. Find activities that give you pleasure and that are good for your mental and physical well-being. Forget about always winning and focus on relaxation, enjoyment, and health. Be good to yourself.