STRESS: FRIEND OR FOE?
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress is a highly subjective phenomenon. Take for example the riders on The Bat roller coaster at Canada’s Wonderland. There are the avid thrill seekers who line up for it over and over again, who are energized and tingly with excitement during the wild ride. Others may have been coaxed into taking the ride by their teenager. The latter are the ones who hold on for dear life, eyes closed, praying for the ordeal to be over.
What caused joyful exhilaration for one individual, was stressful and harrowing for another. However, stress is a universal experience and can be defined as the body’s and brain’s response to physical, mental or emotional pressure.”
CAUSES OF STRESS
As stated above, what causes severe stress for one person, does not create the same response in others. There are some events and circumstances, however, that seem to have a fairly universal role in causing stress for those experiencing them. Holmes and Rahe have created a stress scale that tries to predict how much these stressors affect individuals. It is not surprising that the death of a spouse tops the list at 100 points. Other items included in the inventory are changing residences, being fired from a job, and a major change in the health of a family member. Perhaps, somewhat unexpected is that on the same list of stressors we find events that are normally considered to be positive, such as marriage (at 50 points), retirement, and vacation or major holidays.
I find that interpersonal conflict is a major contributor to stress in the lives of many of my clients. Having an argument or a relationship break-up can be enough to push someone to the brink of a mental health crisis.
Taking on too much responsibility or too many tasks with looming deadlines and not enough time can take an enormous toll and leave individuals feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
HOW DOES STRESS AFFECT YOU PHYSICALLY?
Prolonged exposure to elevated levels of the main stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline has many detrimental consequences for your body.
Insomnia – Stress has a negative impact on your ability to rest and unwind.
Fatigue – Stress can be like hard work. Combined with the effects of poor sleep, no wonder you feel tired.
Sore, tense or aching muscles – the adrenaline that courses through your veins due to stress causes your body to be fight or flight ready by diverting blood flow to your large muscle groups
TMJ Dysfunction – The cracking in your jaw can come from unconscious clenching due to stress
Headaches – Tightening of neck muscles can produce tension headaches or migraines
Elevated heart rate and blood pressure – Adrenaline causes your cardiovascular system to work overtime.
Elevated blood sugar – Cortisol promotes the release of more sugar into your bloodstream to act as fuel to help fight whatever stressor is looming
Digestive woes – Digestion is not a priority when your body is preparing for fight or flight. This can result in nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea.
Your body has no difficulty dealing with these challenges if they are short-lived, but if they persist for months or even years, there may be serious negative effects such as a heart attack or diabetes, not to mention a decreased quality of life due to related aches and pains.
WHAT ARE THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF STRESS?
Irritability – You may find yourself being short-tempered and sharp-tongued, snapping at your loved ones or saying and doing things that you may later regret
Impaired memory and judgment – forgetting important dates and feeling disorganized
Social isolation – You may be too busy and stressed to connect with family and friends
Feeling overwhelmed and anxious – inability to cope with your life
Depression – Feeling overwhelmed and not able to cope can cause your mood to go into a downward spiral.
HOW TO DEAL WITH EXCESSIVE STRESS
If you can identify with some or all of the effects of stress that have been mentioned above, then maybe it’s time for you to have a good look at what you can do to minimize your stress levels. Awareness of the fact that you are under too much pressure is a key observation that can open the door to a calmer, saner life.
Once you have made the realization that you have too much on your plate, here are some practical suggestions to try:
Make a list of everything that causes you stress. After itemizing your stressors, choose one item that you can eliminate. I had one of my clients use this strategy and it made a huge difference in her life.
Examine your perfectionistic tendencies. Wanting everything to be flawless places huge pressure on your life. Adopt a “good enough” attitude
Give up the tight reigns of control. Wanting to be in charge of every detail is not realistic. Learn to delegate and to let go.
Exercise! With stress, your muscles are already pumped up by the adrenaline-induced blood flow. Go for a brisk walk, and make body movement a daily part of your life.
Find ways to relax: take a leisurely soak in the tub or shower, listen to peaceful music, take a few minutes to observe and soak up nature, and meditate.
Change your perspective. Remember that stress does not come from what's going on in your life. It comes from the thoughts about what's going on. A year from now, everything you are stressing about won't even matter.
Focus on what you can control. Stress is caused by trying to have power over things that are beyond your control.
Talk to someone about it. Either a trusted family member or friend. Ideally, connect with a therapist who can help you sort out ways of de-stressing your life to make it more manageable.
ADVANTAGES OF STRESS:
Stress can help you meet deadlines. When you know you have a defined timeline within which to complete a task or goal, you are more likely to accomplish it.
Stress can be motivating. Stress can be a stimulus to stop making excuses and overcome procrastination.
Stress helps athletes perform at their optimal level. Can you picture Damien Warner performing at his world-best level if he had no stress driving him?
Stress can help you side-step danger. Imagine being cut off in traffic and needing to react in a split second.
Stress can increase confidence. Stress can induce you to act despite feeling inadequate. One success can lead to another, building confidence and self-esteem.
Remember that stress is not your enemy. In small amounts, it can be stimulating and motivating, inspiring you to reach unimagined heights. Be alert to its dangers in excess, but be prepared to harness all the advantages it bestows.