What is stress?
We all sometimes talk about stress, and feeling stressed, usually when we feel we have too much to do and too much on our minds, or other people are making unreasonable demands on us, or we are dealing with situations that we do not have control over.
Stress is not a medical diagnosis, but severe stress that continues for a long time may lead to a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, or more severe mental health problems.
You can reduce the effects of stress by being more conscious of the things that cause it, and learning to handle them better, using relaxation techniques as well as other lifestyle changes.
What causes stress?
Situations which are recognised to be very stressful are associated with change, and with lack of control over what is happening. Some of the causes of stress are happy events, but because they bring big changes or make unusual demands on you, they can still be stressful.
Some of the most stressful events are:
- moving house
- getting married
- having a baby
- serious illness in yourself or a friend or family member.
Stress is also caused by long-term difficult circumstances, such as:
- relationship problems
- caring for a disabled family member or friend
- difficulties at work
- bad housing
- noisy neighbours.
Not having enough work, activities or change in your life can be just as stressful as have too much activity and change to deal with.
Is stress harmful?
Stress can have a positive side. A certain level of stress may be necessary and enjoyable in order to help you prepare for something or to actually do it – e.g. if you are taking part in a performance, taking an exam or you have to do an important piece of work for a deadline – it will be stressful even if you enjoy it, and the stress itself will keep you alert and focussed.
Our physical reactions to stress are determined by our biological history and the need to respond to sudden dangers that threatened us when we were still hunters and gatherers. In this situation, the response to danger was ‘fight or flight’. Our bodies still respond in this way, releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
The release of adrenaline causes rapid changes to your blood flow and increases your breathing and heart rate, to get you ready to defend yourself (fight) or to run away (flight). You become pale, sweat more and your mouth becomes dry.
Your body responds in this way to all types of stress as if it were a physical threat. You may merely be having an argument with someone, but your body may react as though you were facing a wolf. If the threat is physical, you use the effects of the adrenaline appropriately – to fight or to run, and when the danger is passed your body recovers. But if the stress is emotional, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly, and you may go on feeling agitated for a long time. If the causes of stress are long-term, you may always be tensed up to deal with them and never relaxed. This is very bad for both your physical and your mental health.
The other stress hormone, cortisol, is present in your body all the time, but levels increase in response to danger and stress. In the short-term, its effects are positive, to help you deal with an immediate crisis, but long-term stress means that cortisol builds up and creates a number of stress-related health problems.
Short-term positive effects:
- a quick burst of energy
- decreased sensitivity to pain
- increase in immunity
- heightened memory.
Long-term negative effects:
- imbalances of blood sugar
- increase in abdominal fat storage
- suppressed thyroid activity
- decreased bone density
- decreased muscle mass
- high blood pressure
- lowered immunity
- less able to think clearly.
People’s tolerance of stress varies. A situation that is intolerable to one person may be stimulating to another. What you feel is determined not just by events and changes in the outside world, but how you perceive and respond to them.
The important point is that you can learn to recognise your own responses to stress and develop skills to deal with it well.