Stress. This one little word carries the weight of the world. And it’s responsible for many health complaints in doctors’ offices across Canada. But what exactly does this word mean? Stress is the “wear and tear” your body experiences as you adjust to the continually changing environment. It has physical and emotional effects and can cause a variety of feelings.
Stress can be your friend or your enemy. A moderate amount of stress can be stimulating and challenging, pushing you to higher levels of personal achievement. But stress overload can be harmful to your health. Being overwhelmed with too many tasks can create negative emotions, such as frustration and anxiety. You can become tired, inefficient, and less decisive if you continue at a frantic pace over an extended period of time. This may lead to exhaustion or illness. Stress can take a terrible toll on your physical and emotional health, as well as on your relationships.
The first step in preventing stress is realizing that it is your response to an event or situation, not the event or situation itself that causes these negative feelings. Things that are stressful for some people aren’t for others. For example, some people find their morning commute incredibly tiring, letting bad traffic conditions frustrate them. Others look at the time in the car as personal time where they can escape from the chaos of work and family commitments.
How the Body Responds to Stress
Stress affects your body by releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, your muscles to tense, and your blood sugar level to increase. The symptoms of stress may include:
- anxiousness, depression or irritability
- sleep disturbances
- muscular tension
- digestive problems
- appetite changes
- frequent minor illnesses
Causes of Stress
There are two main kinds of stressors; external and internal. Examples of external stressors include:
- Physical environment: noise, bright lights, heat, and confined spaces.
- Social interaction: dealing with people who are rude, bossy, or aggressive.
- Major life events: losing your job, the death of a loved one, a promotion, marriage, divorce, or the birth of a baby.
- Daily hassles: commuting, misplaced keys, and mechanical breakdowns.
Examples of internal stressors include:
- Lifestyle choices: too much caffeine, not enough sleep, and an overloaded schedule.
- Negative self-talk: being pessimistic, self-critical, or over-analyzing.
- Mind traps: having unrealistic expectations, taking things personally, all-or-nothing thinking, exaggerating, and rigid thinking.
- Stressful personality traits: being a perfectionist, workaholic, or people pleaser.
Strategize for Stress Control
One of the safest and most effective ways to treat stress is to eliminate the things that cause it when you can. For stressful events that you can’t change, try to modify your attitude and reaction.
Since no single method of stress management is successful all of the time, you may want to try a variety of approaches. Consider the following list of techniques, and determine which ones might work best for you:
- Decrease or discontinue caffeine use: Caffeine is a stimulant. Too much caffeine can cause headaches, restlessness, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. Slowly wean yourself from caffeine to avoid withdrawal headaches.
- Physical activity: Regular, moderate exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress. Aerobic exercise—the kind that increases your heart rate, such as running, walking, bicycling, or swimming—is especially good at reducing the harmful effects of stress. Stretching is also a good way to relieve muscle tension.
- Discuss your feelings: Social support is a major factor in how people experience stress. Knowing that you are cared for may improve your mental and physical health. Speak with someone you trust. By expressing your feelings, you will be able to understand and cope with them better. Or create a stress log and write for about 10 to 15 minutes a day about stressful events and how they make you feel.
- Laughing: Laughter makes your muscles go limp and releases tension, so try to keep a sense of humour.
- Find an activity you enjoy: Choose a hobby or activity that can help you relax, such as writing, gardening, crafts, or art.
- Time management: Time management skills such as prioritizing, managing commitments, and learning to say “no” can allow you more time to relax and can help increase your performance and productivity.
- Lifestyle changes: Some behaviour and lifestyle choices affect your stress level by interfering with the way your body seeks relief from stress. Try to eat a balanced diet, limit your intake of alcohol, avoid smoking, get enough sleep, and balance your personal, work, and family needs and obligations.
- Relaxation techniques: There are a variety of methods that help many people relax and relieve tension.
- Medications: In some cases, a doctor may prescribe a medication to help a person get through a particularly stressful time. Your doctor or London Drugs pharmacist can explain what the options are.
Just wishing away stressful events won’t work. You need to deal with the way stressors affect you. The following are some relaxation techniques that can help reduce the physical symptoms of stress and help ease your mind:
- Deep breathing: During stress, breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Taking a deep breath from the abdomen, rather than the chest, is an effective technique for winding down. Try to do 20 minutes of deep breathing every day for good health, not just when you’re stressed.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves relaxing a series of muscles one at a time. First, you raise the tension in a group of muscles, such as in a leg or arm, by tightening the muscles, and then you relax them. Concentrate on letting the tension go in each muscle.
- Massage therapy: Massages can help relieve muscle tension.
- Aromatherapy: Aroma-producing oils from plants are used to promote relaxation.
- Yoga, tai chi, and qi gong: These are forms of exercise and meditation. Many local community centres offer classes in these techniques.
- Music therapy: Music can alter your mood and help you relax.
- Meditation: This relaxation technique focuses your attention on feeling calm and having a clear awareness about your life.
- Guided imagery: Also known as visualization, this relaxation method involves lying quietly and picturing yourself in a pleasant and peaceful setting.
The world is a busy place chock full of stressful situations. While you can’t always control the events and situations that cause you stress, you can control how you manage your reaction to daily stressors.