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|Volume 11 |Issue 23| June 08, 2012 ||
Stark Raving Stress
Stress can have different meanings for different people. Nowadays, our lives are dominated by our demanding schedules. Meeting a deadline for a final paper, an important presentation at the office, picking one's children up from school on time, dealing with an unstable relationship, submitting this article before the boss notices, can all be causes of stress. Sometimes, stress is so commonplace in our lives, it becomes a part of it without us even noticing, but while stress has its uses, like all things useful, an excess of it can have its adverse effects.
It is important to understand what stress is in the physiological sense, in order to control it. When we perceive a threat of any kind, our nervous system tends to respond by releasing a flow of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body for emergency action. When this happens, the heart pounds faster, blood pressure rises, muscles stiffen, there is a quickness of breath and our senses become sharper. These reactions increases our strength and stamina, speeding up our reactions and helping us focus so we can either fight or escape the dangerous situation.
Basically, stress is our body's way of protecting us, helping us stay focused and alert, which is great when you're about to be in a car accident and you slam on the brakes at the last second and survive. However, the body doesn't distinguish between physical and psychological threats, so sometimes, the threats can be imaginary and the body will still react just as strongly. Therefore, beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts becoming harmful to our health, mood, relationships, productivity and our quality of life in general.
We recognise the external causes of stress quite easily and some of them have been mentioned above, but we tend to forget that stress has internal causes as well. One's inability to accept uncertainty, unrealistic expectations from oneself and others, perfectionism, pessimism, negative thoughts and self talk, lack of confidence and assertiveness can all be causes of stress.
According to Dr Shahnaz Alam, there are three common ways we respond to stress. One, we become extremely angry or agitated, overly emotional and are unable to sit still. Two, we become withdrawn and show very little energy or emotions. Three, we become so tense we freeze under pressure and become paralysed emotionally, while under the surface, we are extremely agitated and disturbed.
Recognising the warning signs of stress is very important before we start to deal with it. There are many red flags to look out for before seeking help. Some cognitive symptoms that will surface include memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment skills, negative thoughts, anxious or racing thoughts, and constant nagging worry.
Some emotional symptoms include moodiness, short temper, inability to relax, feeling overwhelmed, sense of loneliness and isolation and general unhappiness and depression.
Behavioural symptoms such as eating more or less, sleeping either too much or not enough, neglecting responsibilities, using substances such as alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to relax and nervous habits such as nail biting will start to show.
Physical symptoms will also manifest themselves in the form of aches and pains, nausea and dizziness, loss of sex drive, recurrent colds, diarrhea or constipation and chest pains and rapid heartbeat.
“When we experience stress, we start to sweat profusely,” says Dr Shanaz Alam, “Our bodies start to lose electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and chloride, making us very weak.” According to Alam, long term exposure to stress can lead to many more serious health problems. “Stress can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke,” explains Alam. It can also cause infertility, sleep disorders, speed up the aging process (ladies please note), make us prone to obesity, autoimmune diseases and skin problems such as eczema. Chronic stress can also affect the brain, leaving it susceptible to depression and anxiety.
Some stresses are unavoidable. Having said that, there are ways of dealing with certain situations that can minimise the damage caused by stress. The first thing we have to do to start controlling our stress level is identify the cause of stress and address the situation rather than avoid it. In order to do this, we must first learn our limits of tolerance and stick to them in our professional and personal lives. We must learn to say no to added responsibilities so that we never take on more than we can handle. We should also learn to avoid people who stress us out as much as possible. We must remove ourselves as much as possible from stressful environments. If the news is bothering us, we should change the channel for example. If the traffic is horrendous we should think of pleasant thoughts and alternate routes and timings to minimise frustration. We can also avoid subjects of conversation that are upsetting such as politics or that raise we never got. We should also have to-do lists and cross off unnecessary responsibilities that can be dealt with at leisure.
If a stressful situation cannot be avoided, we can try and alter it so the same problem does not arise in the future. For example, we can express our feelings when something is bothering us and communicate with others in a respectful way instead of letting our resentments remain bottled up. We can also try to be more compromising and change our own behaviours/attitudes when necessary. Being assertive and dealing with issues head on will give us more control over our lives and reduce stresses. Time management is also something we can work with so as not to stretch ourselves too much. In such cases, planning ahead always helps.
When we cannot change a stressor, we can change ourselves to adapt to them. We can think of situations in a more positive light. For example, instead of tearing our hair out in frustration while stuck in a traffic jam, we can use the time to catch up on reading, homework, assignments or even listen to music to relax. Looking at the big picture also helps sometimes. For example we can ask ourselves if this situation will matter in a year's time or even a month's time and if we think it won't we can focus our emotions on more important matters.
Lowering our standards at times can help deal with stressors. Usually, being a perfectionist can be a major cause of stress. It is also important to concentrate on the good things in life and reflect on them when we are feeling down.
Sometimes, when we cannot change certain things, such as the behaviour of others, it is best to let it go and focus on things we can improve. Learning to forgive is one of the best ways to reduce stress.
An important thing to do when feeling stressed out is to find some time for ourselves to do things we enjoy. It doesn't have to be a long vacation in an exotic country, it can be taking a day off to sleep in, read a good book, take a relaxing walk, take a hot bath, cook a good meal, spend time with our families and friends (who won't stress us out), play with our pets—simple things that don't involve anxiety of any sort.
“The best way to minimise stress is to follow a simple routine, exercise daily without exerting yourself too much and follow a healthy diet,” says Dr Alam. Reducing alcohol ad nicotine consumptions and caffeine intake can do wonders for stress reduction.
Stress is an emotion that is capable of possessing us entirely until we become unrecognisable, even to ourselves. So before we start having melt downs at work and ripping up important documents in front of the boss, screaming obscenities at strangers on the road, terrorising our children and household pets with our foul tempers and eventually running around the streets stark raving mad, we should really do something to control it. Best of luck!
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