If you ask anyone how they are these days, you’ll probably get the response, “eto, stressed”. It’s the affliction of the 20th century and no one has gone untouched. Stress has even begun to infect our children, starting with pressure to perform as early as preschool and ending up with the most stressed-out adolescents and young adults the world has ever seen.
What is stress, anyway?
The word “stress” has become so common that people use it to describe anything from tiny daily hassles to major issues such as impending unemployment.
Medical terminology about stress isn’t very clear, either.
The American Institute of Stress details how endocrinologist and scientist Hans Selye’s initial and general definition of stress, which is “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”, had to be changed so many times that Selye himself was quoted to have said, “everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows,” when asked by reporters to explain the phenomenon.
The National Institute for Mental Health, on the other hand, defines it further as the “brain's response to any demand.” That’s still not very clear, though.
The most definitive description we could find of stress comes from Science Daily, which states thus: “Stress is a medical term for a wide range of strong external stimuli, both physiological and psychological, which can cause a physiological response called the general adaptation syndrome.”
By most medical definitions, what we normally call “stress” is actually our reaction to a “stressor”. Psychology clears it up for us, defining it as “any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes”.
When you ask people how they feel and they reply with “I’m stressed”, they aren’t really thinking of their deadlines or the fact that their children are down with the flu – which are technically the stressors in their life – they’re referring to the feeling of being overwhelmed, anxious, nervous, and irritable.
What does it do to your body?
A body’s reaction to stress can be easily detected. The endocrine system releases hormones in response to stressors, including but not limited to rapid heart rate accompanied by quicker, shallower breathing; higher blood pressure, dilated pupils, and a heightened sensitivity to certain stimuli.
Part of why Selye had to spend so much time redefining the concept of stress is that it is always painted in a negative light, when in truth, stress is not always unhealthy. In fact, it can even be good for you. The ability to become stressed is a sign that you’re still in a healthy state of mind.
Think of stress as the body’s alarm system. If it’s working well, it can keep you out of danger, pumping enough adrenaline into your system for that added push to make it to the finish line of a race, or pull an all-nighter to meet a deadline, or be driven to achieve your dreams.
Now picture a car with its alarm broken and its owner too far away to hear it. Its siren shrieks non-stop, setting your nerves on edge as you grit your teeth, cover your ears, and try to bear with it. The only way for this torture to end is if the car’s battery runs out or someone short-circuits the engine to turn it off.
That’s what chronic stress is like. An endless, pointless, harrowing experience for the people who bear it and the people who have to witness it. The condition isn’t as uncommon as it should be, and as the world moves at a faster pace, it’s becoming more and more rampant.
If left unchecked, chronic stress can lead to several health problems. In fact, prolonged exposure to stress has been irrefutably linked to heart disease, a weakened immune system, stroke, hypertension, stomach ulcers, and even asthma.
Work as a source of stress
For most people, their most common and constant source of stress is their job. It could be that their work relationships aren’t perfect, or that there’s a temporary situation that’s causing them anxiety, or they just have stressful jobs.
Whatever the reason behind it, this type of stress is one of the easiest to handle in a mature, healthy manner.
We have a few suggestions that may come in handy.
1. Get enough sleep
Adequate sleep helps you stave off the physical effects of stress.
If you get less than you need, you will feel stress more harshly, and possibly for longer.
A lack of sleep also makes it harder for you to concentrate on tasks at hand, snowballing the problem causing the stress into unmanageable proportions.
2. Get active
Exercise is a huge help in managing stress. Whether you do yoga or go for a run, the exertion allows you to blow off some steam and helps your body to relax.
Exercise releases feel-good hormones called endorphins, which soothes away feelings of depression and anxiety, while promoting the production of neurohormones like norepinephrine.
This hormone is associated with improved cognitive function, elevated mood and learning, which counteract the negative effects of stress on the brain, one of which is to atrophy the cells in the parts of the brain that control memory and learning.
3. Get a hobby
Finding a creative outlet for your anxiety can work wonders. Take up painting, gardening, cooking, collecting, or calligraphy. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you love doing it.
A study that was published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that people who indulged in leisure activities that they enjoyed were 34% less stressed than those who didn’t. What’s more, these people reported feeling happier in general, and experienced the warm, calming glow of their beloved activity for many hours after the activity was concluded.
Researchers are convinced that these results indicate that the long-term effects of leisure can potentially lower stress levels and combat chronic stress.
4. Get some perspective
Many experts recommend getting in touch with your feelings to be able to sort them out.
Meditation is one way to do this, but some quiet time and introspection can also do the job, if you’re willing to do some soul-searching.
Find out what is causing you such distress and why, and you’ll be that much closer to finding a solution. At the very least, you’ll be calmer and more prepared to deal with the stressor when the time comes to face it again.
5. Get organized
A lot of stress comes from the feeling of having little to no control over the things that happen to you. By taking back some control, you can at least gain some psychological advantage by feeling that you are making headway into the problem.
One way to get more organized is to make a habit of creating to-do lists each day before your day officially begins. Knowing what is coming your way helps you to feel more prepared, and hopefully less stressed.
6. When all else fails, get help
Talk to family, friends, or even trusted colleagues about what is bothering you. Emotional support from a network of friends is essential to managing a stressful time.
Help is also available from strangers. There are several forums online where you can vent and find support.
You can even go online to find counselors that specialize in helping people deal with work-related stress.
Stress has been undeniably linked to most major illnesses and is suspected to be the direct cause of up to three quarters of the total amount of hospitalizations. Work stress is the most common and most prevalent among stressors, but luckily, there are healthy ways to deal with that problem that don’t involve drinking away your sorrows.