What is Stress?
Stress is something that we are all familiar with to a certain degree, whether it is sitting in traffic, a difficult day, or a negative interaction with someone. All of these instances lead to feelings of stress.
Technically speaking, stress is difficult to define because it is a subjective assessment of our physical, emotional, and psychological selves.
On a biological level, stress can play an important role in the “fight or flight” response that is garnered when we are in a situation of potential danger.
Physiological changes include increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and increased adrenaline, to name a few. These changes allow your body to react most efficiently in a situation that we either need to react to physically (fight response) or to escape from (flight response).
Prolonged periods of stress eventually cause your body to begin shutting down because of the intense toll it can take on your body. There is a balance to how much stress is easily managed but is not so stressful that it disrupts our lives.
If 100 people were asked about stress, what their stressors are, and how they feel stress, you would likely get 100 different answers. Stress is a very subjective feeling, meaning that it can be difficult to measure. We all feel stress differently, at different levels, and about different instigators. However, there is some overlap in the types of responses to stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress, the current definition is “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Essentially, stress is a response to stimuli.
What Are the Symptoms of Stress?
Research has found that when exposed to stressors, such as blaring light, loud noise, extreme temperatures, and frustrating tasks, individuals all reacted similarly with the following symptoms:
- Stomach ulcerations
- Changes in hormone balances
- Increased adrenaline
- Blood pressure increases
- Tense muscles
While stress has its roots in a very physiological set of circumstances, stress is also commonly used as a blanket term for any upsetting or displeasing situation. Stress occurs because we are not able or prepared to manage situations as they arise, whether they are positive or negative.
What Are Common Causes of Stress?
Because stress is such a subjective feeling, many things can be stressors. Some of the common causes of stress include:
- Relationship issues
- Family issues
- Job Concerns
- Bad Traffic
When stress takes a physiological toll on your body, your body attempts to compensate. Often our behaviors change to reflect these attempts to compensate; we may alter our diet, sleep pattern, activity, or drug or substance use.
However, there are a number of ways to manage and treat stress.
How to Manage Stress:
Exercise is known to help relieve stress. It is the most effective way of reducing cortisol, which is a chemical released in to your body that is directly tied to stress. Being active also helps reset your body’s responses and disengage the “fight or flight” response.
Creating lists or organizing are ways of managing your “head space.” Lists help you create concrete and tangible goals in terms of managing and reducing your stressors.
Decreased drug, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine use are often beneficial when managing stress. These substances change your body chemistry and often depress the release of important chemicals and hormones.
Finding ways to relax is key to managing stress. Whether it is walking your dog, reading a book, meditation, or a vacation, taking breaks allows you to regain a measure of control over your immediate situation.
Similarly, taking deep breaths helps slow down heart rate and lower blood pressure, as we often breath more quickly and shallowly when agitated.
Maintain a strong network of support. Sometimes you may feel the need to ask a friend or family member to help you deal with your stress. Whether you need someone to talk to or a friend to help you through a stressful situation, a good support network can help.
If you are in a stressful situation that is difficult to manage or your stress progresses into chronic issues such as anxiety or depression, it may be worth seeking the assistance of a medical professional.
A primary care physician should be able to provide treatment options - this may include stress management and coping tips and/or medication to correct symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure.
Talk therapy can be useful for discussing specific stressors or issues that have resulted in stress or symptoms of stress.
Additional Resources for Stress:
American Institute of Stress: a nonprofit organization that offers definitions, professional articles, research topics, scientific research, and resources related to stress.
How To Deal With Stress: an article from Medical News Today that discusses the causes and symptoms of stress and offers tips for coping with and managing stress.
Stress Management Society: a non-profit organization that works to help people deal with stress.