Stress is simply a fact of nature - forces from the inside or outside world affecting the individual. The individual responds to stress in ways that affect the individual as well as their environment. Because of the overabundance of stress in our modern lives, we usually think of stress as a negative experience, but from a biological point of view, stress can be a neutral, negative, or positive experience.
In general, stress is related to both external and internal factors. External factors include the physical environment, including your job, your relationships with others, your home, and all the situations, challenges, difficulties, and expectations you're confronted with on a daily basis.
Internal factors determine your body's ability to respond to, and deal with, the external stress-inducing factors. Internal factors which influence your ability to handle stress include your nutritional status, overall health and fitness levels, emotional well-being, and the amount of sleepand rest you get.
Stress has driven evolutionary change (the development and natural selection of species over time). Thus, the species that adapted best to the causes of stress (stressors) have survived and evolved into the plant and animal kingdoms we now observe.
Excess stress can manifest itself in a variety of emotional, behavioral and even physical symptoms, and the symptoms of stress vary enormously among different individuals. Common somatic (physical) symptoms often reported by those experiencing excess stress include sleep disturbances, muscle tension, muscle aches, headache, gastrointestinal disturbances and fatigue.
Emotional and behavioral symptoms that can accompany excess stress include nervousness, anxiety, changes in eating habits including overeating, loss of enthusiasm or energy, and mood changes, like irritability and depression
. Of course, none of these signs or symptoms means for certain that there is an elevated stress level since all of these symptoms can be caused by other medical and/or psychological conditions.
It is also known that people under stress have a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive use or abuse of alcohol and drugs, cigarette smoking
, and making poor exercise and nutritional choices, than their less-stressed counterparts. These unhealthy behaviors can further increase the severity of symptoms related to stress, often leading to a "vicious cycle" of symptoms and unhealthy behaviors.
The experience of stress is highly individualized. What constitutes overwhelming stress for one person may not be perceived as stress by another. Like wise, the symptoms and signs of poorly managed stress will be different for each person.
- Stress usually first affects the inner emotions. Initial symptoms may include the following feelings:
- Excessive worry.
- Internal pressure.
- These emotional states can then begin to affect a person's outward appearance:
- Unusually anxious or nervous.
- As the stress level increases, or if it lasts over a longer period of time, a person may begin to feel more severe emotional or physical effects:
- Excessive fatigue.
- Sometimes even think of hurting yourself or others.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Chest pain or pressure.
- Heart racing.
- Dizziness or flushing.
- Tremulousness or restlessness.
- Hyperventilation or choking sensation.
- In most cases, these symptoms are very minor and don't last very long. If they become more severe or increase in frequency and severity, seek medical help.
The following are risk factors for uncontrollable stress:
- Social and financial problems.
- Medical illness.
- Lack of social support.
- Family history.
Who is most vulnerable to stress?
Stress comes in many forms and affects people of all ages and all walks of life. No external standards can be applied to predict stress levels inindividuals - one need not have a traditionally stressful job to experience workplace stress, just as a parent of one child may experience more parental stress than a parent of several children.
The degree of stress in our lives is highly dependent upon individual factors such as our physical health, the quality of our interpersonal relationships, the number of commitments and responsibilities we carry, the degree of others' dependence upon us, expectations of us, the amount of support we receive from others, and the number of changes or traumatic events that have recently occurred in our lives.
Some generalizations, however, can be made. People with adequate social support networks report less stress and overall improved mental health in comparison to those without adequate social support. People who are poorly nourished, who get inadequate sleep, or who are physically unwell also have a reduced capacity to handle pressures and stresses of everyday life and may report higher stress levels.
Some stressors are particularly associated with certain age groups or life stages. Children, teens, working parents, and seniors are examples of the groups who often face common stressors related to life transitions.
Self-Care at Home
When you find yourself feeling the bad effects of stress, you need to take action immediately. The sooner you begin the process of treatment, the easier it will be and the quicker you will be back to your normal state.
- The first step in the process is to try to identify the cause of the stress. Sometimes this is a known source such as a deadline at work, a pile of unpaid bills, or a relationship that is not working out. It can at times be more difficult to find the source of your problem.
- Often, many relatively mild stressors occurring at once can bring on the same stress as a larger problem or known source of anxiety or worry.
- Some people experience stress from events that occurred in the past (post-traumatic stress disorder).
- If you can identify the source of your stress, remove yourself from it or address the situation. That may be all that is needed to resolve the situation and your anxiety. Even if you are only able to get away for a few seconds or minutes, the break is important and can help you on the way to a more permanent solution.
- This break can be accomplished by physically removing yourself from the provoking situation (such as an argument) or mentally removing yourself from the stressor (such as financial worries) through a mental distraction, often called a time-out.
- The point of these actions is to allow you a moment to relax and formulate a plan for dealing with the problem at hand. Just having a plan can be a great stress reliever. It gives you a set of positive steps that you can work on to get yourself back to your baseline and out of the stressful situation.
- These steps should be broken down into tasks you can accomplish easily. Working toward a goal is rewarding. It prevents the hopelessness and lost feeling that can accompany stress and make it worse.
- If you are unable to determine the source of your stress, you need to seek outside help. Sometimes discussing your situation with family, friends, or a spiritual adviser can be helpful. If these routes are not successful, you should make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health counselor to help determine the source of the stress and rule out any potentially reversible medical causes of your stress.
- The treatment of your stress will vary greatly depending on the types of symptoms you are experiencing and how severe they are.
- Treatment can range from simple reassurance to inpatient care and evaluation in a hospital setting. Some basic treatment recommendations are as follows:
- Careful workup and evaluation by a doctor.
- Regular exercise program.
- Biofeedback as indicated.
- Counseling by qualified mental health professionals, as needed.
- Medical intervention for any physical problems discovered.