What is stress

Stress is the most common cause of ill health in our society, probably underlying as many as 70% of all visits to family doctors. Dr. Hans Selye, the father of stress theory and recognized by the Yale University School of Medicine Heart Book as a pioneer in stress and stress-related diseases, defined stress as "the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it." The "demand" can be a threat, a challenge or any kind of change which requires the body to adapt. The response is automatic, immediate. Stress can be good (called "eustress") when it helps us perform better, or it can be bad ("distress") when it causes upset or makes us sick.

We now learned that we respond to demands, but what happens when we can't turn off our internal response to these demands? Well, they stay on. As a result, you might start to experience general symptoms such as anxiety, depression, negative mood states including anger or irritability, or stomach cramps and headaches. This is what a researcher by the name of Zimbardo and colleagues call "non-specific and unexplainable general arousal." Relaxation is the process of turning-off the response to demand.

But if you not conscious of the state of stress you are, how will you ever be able to activate the process of turning-off. Read Celeste's story.

Stress is both additive and cumulative. It adds up over time until a state of crisis is reached and symptoms appear. These symptoms may manifest themselves psychologically as irritability, anxiety, impaired concentration, mental confusion, poor judgment, frustration and anger. They may appear as physical symptoms. Common physical symptoms of stress include: muscle tension, headaches, low back pain, insomnia and high blood pressure. Untreated, these symptoms may lead to physical illness and sometimes death.

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The stress reaction

The stress reaction results from an outpouring of adrenaline, a stimulant hormone, into the blood stream. This, with other stress hormones, produces a number of changes in the body which are intended to be protective. The result often is called "the fight-or-flight response" because it provides the strength and energy to either fight or run away from danger. The changes include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure (to get more blood to the muscles, brain and heart), faster breathing (to take in more oxygen), tensing of muscles (preparation for action), increased mental alertness and sensitivity of sense organs (to assess the situation and act quickly), increased blood flow to the brain, heart and muscles (the organs that are most important in dealing with danger) and less blood to the skin, digestive tract, kidneys and liver (where it is least needed in times of crisis). In addition, there is an increase in blood sugar, fats and cholesterol (for extra energy) and a rise in platelets and blood clotting factors (to prevent hemorrhage in case of injury).

That's appropriate if the stimulus is a rampaging mastodon or a cudgel-wielding enemy. It's a major overreaction if your boss yells at you or someone cuts you out of a parking space. Conclusion: our physiological response to stress hasn't evolved beyond the days when we lived in caves. Our cave-dwelling ancestors, by running or fighting, got the source of the stress out of their lives. Modern man is frequently unable to avoid or overcome the stress causes in his environment, and therefore spends a major portion of his life in a state for which he isn't really designed -- like a car kept constantly at full throttle, even when it is sitting at a stop light.

What Are Common Symptoms of Stress?

Manifestations of stress are numerous and varied but they generally fall into four categories (this is only a partial list of most common symptoms):

Physical: fatigue, headache, insomnia, muscle aches/stiffness (especially neck, shoulders and low back), heart palpitations, chest pains, abdominal cramps, nausea, trembling, cold extremities, flushing or sweating and frequent colds.

Mental: decrease in concentration and memory, indecisiveness, mind racing or going blank, confusion, loss of sense of humor.

Emotional: anxiety, nervousness, depression, anger, frustration, worry, fear, irritability, impatience, short temper.

Behavioral: pacing, fidgeting, nervous habits (nail-biting, foot-tapping), increased eating, smoking, drinking, crying, yelling, swearing, blaming and even throwing things or hitting.

What are the causes of stress

The causes of stress are multiple and varied but they can be classified in two general groups: external and internal. External stressors can include relatives getting sick or dying, jobs being lost or people criticizing or becoming angry. However, most of the stress that most of us have is self-generated (internal). We create the majority of our upsets, indicating that because we cause most of our own stress, we can do something about it. This gives us a measure of choice and control that we do not always have when outside forces act on us.

External stressors include:

Internal stressors include:

How to master stress

Stressmanagement: The late Hans Selye, conceived the idea a half century ago: your body's stress response is a preparation for exertion, so run (or, perhaps more wisely, walk briskly), punch a punching bag, hit a tennis ball or find some other appropriate and even enjoyable way of putting to use the preparations your body has made. This is a method to start with, after consulting your doctor. But for a result in the long run there is much more to do. In general, stress management should be part of an overall treatment program prescribed for you by a competent physician, who will also have located and adequately addressed any medical causes of your condition.

To master stress, you must change. You have to figure out what you are doing that is contributing to your problem and change it. These changes fall into four categories:

By getting to the root causes of your stress, you can not only relieve current problems and symptoms but you can also prevent recurrences. For example, if you keep becoming frustrated over arguments with your children, you might discover that the cause of your upset is not their behavior but your unrealistic expectations. By modifying your standards, you might find the children's actions no longer bother you.

10 practical and down-to-earth strategies

  1. Decrease or Discontinue Caffeine (coffee, tea, colas, chocolate).
  2. Regular Exercise (at least 30 minutes, three times per week).
  3. Relaxation/Meditation
  4. Sleep (figure out what you need, then get it)
  5. Time-outs and Leisure (do something for yourself everyday).
  6. Realistic Expectations
  7. Reframing
  8. Belief Systems
  9. Ventilation/Support System
  10. Humor


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