WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress is a physiological acknowledgement of pressure and the body’s response to it. More like, the body’s natural response to an impending threat. Stress as a disease, is a psychosomatic condition not only affecting the mind but the body as well with significant manifestations.
In our everyday terms, stress can be said as a feeling that people have when they are burdened and struggling to cope with demands both physical and psychological.
These common demands that play a part of an average individual’s lives are; academics, finances, work, relationships, and other situations posing a real or perceived challenge or threat to a person’s well-being can lead to stress.
Stress, therefore, occurs when there is a mismatch between the need for these actions and an individual’s ability to understand and cope with these demands.
Stress sometimes can be good, motivating you to perform well. Persistent stress can overwhelm the body leading to life-threatening problems. How well can you handle stress? You are either “calm reactors” or the “hot reactors”. Hot reactors are persons who tend to; become angry easily, be anxious or depressed, urinate frequently, and experience gastrointestinal problems; all in response to stress.
OUR BODY’S RESPONSE TO STRESS
In a physiologic state, the body is relaxed until there is a demand just like Newton’s 1st law of motion “an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force”. This demand can be perceived by the brain as a threat, thereby sending signals to your body to deal with it by adapting to the situation. The response to prepare you to ‘fight’ the threat or to run away from the threat (flight) is known as the “fight or flight” response.
In this response, the body releases neurotransmitters and hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, cortisol, etc. to alter the body’s metabolic process in sustaining stress without disturbing its hemostatic state. Most often than not, the metabolic process of the body is markedly increased. This response may be triggered by threat such as a fall in blood pressure, by pain, physical injury, emotional upset or fall in blood sugar levels. The fight-or-flight response is characterized by tachycardia (increased heart rate), anxiety, increased perspiration (sweating), tremor, and increased blood glucose concentrations.
Why will there be this response? Let’s consider this scenario;
An individual being chased by a dog. In this case, there is a threat. The body responds to this by stimulating the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine. The tissues’ response to these hormones is dependent on the receptors on the surface of target organs and tissues. The receptors are known as alpha-adrenergic and beta-adrenergic receptors.
In general, activation of alpha-adrenergic receptors results in the constriction of blood vessels (which in turn increases the blood pressure to enable the boy to pump more blood to the limbs to run as fast as possible to save his life), and dilation of the pupils (to enable him to see from far to run for his life). Activation of beta-receptors increases heart rate and stimulates cardiac contraction dilates the bronchi (thereby increasing airflow into and out of the lungs). The body also prepares itself for increased fuel demands by releasing glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream.
Now, this scenario is as equal as when you are anxious about an examination, financial problem, fear of losing one’s job when the boss yells. Why? Because the brain cannot really differentiate between a very dangerous threat such as being chased by a dog and a minor inconvenient scenario such as an upcoming exam. In all cases, there is an adrenaline rush and the blood pressure skyrockets.
In the year 1936 Hans Selye described the body’s response to sustained and unrelenting stress into three basic stages.
• Stage 1 (The Alarm Reaction): Autonomic activation.
• Stage 2 (Resistance): Damage occurs or adaption to stress.
• Stage 3 (Exhaustion): Organism dies or suffers irreversible damage.
The picture presented above might get you confused about the difference between stress and illness. This is a complex relationship with a lot of hypothesis but one should be aware that not all forms of stress are negative to the body. Acute stress boosts the immune system while chronic stress depresses the immune system.
Signs of short term (Acute) stress includes:
• Tachycardia (increased heart beat).
• Perspiration (sweating).
• Persistent muscle pain and tension.
• A desire to urinate (Urgency).
• ‘Butterflies in stomach’.
• Tachypnea (Rapid Breathing).
• Cold hands and feet.
Signs of long term (chronic) stress includes:
• Change in appetite.
• Weight fluctuations.
• Sexual disorders.
• Long-term tiredness.
• Frequent cold and infection.
• Migraine headaches..
• Aches and pains (skeletomuscular).
• Coronary heart disease.
• Irregular menstrual cycle.
Psychological Signs you are stressed.
Changes in your thinking and emotions
• Trouble concentrating.
• Loss of self-confidence.
• Lapses of memory.
• Poor judgment.
• Feeling pressured.
• A feeling of insecurity.
• Anger and irritability.
• Feeling hopeless.
Changes in your actions
• Drug and alcohol abuse.
• Isolation (withdrawing from others).
• Frequent crying.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
Identification and acknowledging the stressor (what is causing the stress) is one of the first steps to help manage stress. The next step is being able to find your own de-stressor (that which relieves stress) in times of stress. The following activities may help manage stress.
• Go for a walk
• Practice aromatherapy by placing dew drops of lavender oil on your perfume.
• Take deep, long breaths.
• Get a massage.
• Give someone a hug.
• Listen to relaxing music or watch a comedy show.
• Talk to people.
• Avoid alcohol and drug abuse.
• Eat healthy.
• Practice leisure activities.
• Regular vacations.
TIPS FOR DEVELOPING STRESS-RESILIENT ATTITUDES
In as much as there are ways to relief stress, we do not have to always be at the mercies of our hormones but rather develop stress-resilient attitudes to avoid it.
• See setbacks or failures as temporary.
• Avoid blaming yourself for things beyond your control.
• Practice an attitude of gratitude by focusing on positive events you have achieved.
• View changes in your life as a challenge instead of a threat.
• Do not expect perfection or that others should always meet your standards.
• Forgive people.
• Don’t go to bed angry.
REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD AVOID FREQUENT STRESSFUL SITUATIONS
Prolonged or repeated arousal of stress can have harmful physical and psychological consequences, including:
• Cardiovascular disease such as chronic hypertension, heart attack, cardiomegaly etc.
• Susceptible to infections and slow wound healing.
• Persistent headaches.
• Ageing faster.
• Adrenal fatigue.
Psychological consequences includes:
• Mood disorders.
• Memory problems.
• Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in the elderly.
Other reasons include:
• Loosing people round you because you are always agitated.
• Drug and alcohol abuse which is also another stress agent not only to the patient but indirectly to the patient’s loved ones.
The growing concern of stress-related disorders and the effect of stress on economies is now a point of focus for regions renowned for their long working hours like China and Japan. In the 21st century, common phrases like “worked to death, drop death, work until you drop” are often encountered. This is as a result of work-related deaths due to stress. “GUOLAOSI” and “KAROSHI” are common street words for death overwork in China and Japan respectively.