In this modern and fast-paced world we live in, stress is a phenomenon that affects all of us. Not all stress is bad; in fact, it is a normal response to events that occur in our lives. However, certain types of stress do result in negative impacts on our bodies and mind e.g. too much stress over a prolonged period of time. Why are these types of stress so harmful to our health and how can we better manage it?
What is Stress?
Emotional Aspect of Stress
Stress is a highly subjective phenomenon but is generally defined as “a feeling that people have when they are overloaded and struggling to cope with demands” (Medical News Today, American Institute of Stress). The stress level that people experience from the same event varies because it is a subjective emotion after all, and people have differing thresholds and boundaries.
Physical Aspect of Stress
There is a physical component to stress as well. Stress triggers the fight or flight response innate in humans; when exposed to stressors, our bodies produce “larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine”, which leads to increased heart rate, sweating, etc. (Medical News Today). Stress has proved to be necessary for survival because this fight or flight response allows us to respond in time towards threats.
Types of Stress
1. Acute Stress
Acute stress is the most common type of stress that is experienced and is our body’s short-term response to a new event or challenge e.g. worrying over an upcoming deadline. Such stress does not necessarily negatively impact our bodies and might actually be healthy (Healthline).
2. Episodic Acute Stress
Episodic acute stress refers to frequent bouts of acute stress, and people who experience this are more exposed to negative health effects (Medical News Today).
3. Chronic Stress
Chronic stress refers to unresolved stress experienced over a prolonged period of time and can be due to circumstances like chronic poverty, a dysfunctional family, or an unsatisfactory marriage (Healthline). This type of stress results in the most negative health effects because constant exposure to stress gradually wears down the bodily systems.
How Stress affects our Physical Health
Stress causes changes to the body in many ways, and consequences differ depending on the type of stress that is experienced. Here are some impacts that stress can cause.
When one is under stress, the body’s respiratory and cardiovascular system works harder in order to supply oxygen-rich blood to the body, which also raises blood pressure. Over time, frequent or chronic stress leads to an overworked heart, which increases the risks of having a stroke or heart attack (Healthline).
In times of stress, the liver also produces extra glucose for more energy, which could increase the risk of having Type 2 diabetes in the long run. Stress also weakens the body’s immune system over time, increasing the vulnerability of the body to viral illnesses (Healthline).
How Stress affects our Mental Health
Due to the emotional reactions that occur because of stress, prolonged exposure to unresolved stress also has an impact on mental health. Some common emotional reactions to stress include anxiety, anger, burnout, irritability, etc. (Medical News Today). Such recurring emotions can have a profound impact on our mental health especially if we are not able to find a sustainable way of expressing and managing stress.
A 3-Step Guide to Dealing with Stress
Stress is an inevitable part of our lives but its impacts are many and profound. Learning to manage and deal with stress effectively is beneficial not just for our productivity but also for our own health and well-being in the long run.
Awareness is key because it is only after gaining awareness of whether one is stressed, that one can proceed to deal with and improve the situation. Being aware of our bodily and emotional states is necessary to identify moments when we are stressed.
2. Identify and Work on Root Cause
Identifying the cause of stress is the next important step because working on the root cause might help alleviate the feelings of stress. It is worth noting that sometimes it is difficult to identify the cause of stress especially when it is subtle or when we have grown accustomed to it.
3. Manage Stress
If the root cause of stress persists, the next best course of action would be to manage stress. Here are some ways that can be adopted to manage stress.
Exercise has been proven to improve one’s mood by releasing ‘feel-good’ chemicals like endorphins. It is also one of the best ways to relax the body when it is in a tense state.
2. Deep breathing techniques
By paying attention to our breathing and breathing mindfully, this can measure and alter our psychological state, “making a stressful moment increase or diminish in intensity” (WebMD).
3. Set boundaries and say 'no'
Sometimes we take on too many commitments when there is already a lot on our plate, thus it is important to continually assess our load and set boundaries to what we commit to which could further exacerbate our stress.
4. Manage your expectations
Sometimes we base our expectations on what we actually have no control over. Accepting that there are things that are not within our control, and working on things that we can actually change, helps us manage our expectations. This reduces stress because the focus is then only on what we can improve on.
5. Effective time management
There just doesn’t seem to be enough time! Learning to manage time well is just as important as learning to manage our expectations. Planning time well and spending time effectively can help us be more productive and enhance work-life balance, in turn reducing the stress we experience.
6. Make time for hobbies
Spending time on the things we actually enjoy doing allows our mind to slow down and be focused on something else for a moment, relieving pent up stress.
7. Drink tea
A large dose of caffeine could cause a temporary spike in blood pressure. Drinking tea, which contains less caffeine and more antioxidants, is better for reducing stress and providing a calming sensation e.g. green tea (Healthline).
8. Eat right
Eating regular and well-balanced meals helps control moods (WebMD). Eating a handful of pistachios, walnuts, or almonds a day may help lower cholesterol, reduce the likelihood of diabetes, and protect the body against the effects of stress (WebMD).
9. Take a break
Working too much without a break leads to stress and exhaustion; taking a break and coming back to work again can increase productivity and creativity (Psychology Today). Some of the best ways to take a break include going for a walk, going outside (be it in nature or on the streets), taking a power nap, meditating.
10. Social support
Humans are social creatures, so talk it out and let it out! Talking to close friends/family and turning to a strong support system helps reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. Even (positive) self-talk has been shown to reduce stress (WebMD).
11. Seek help
When things get too overwhelming, it can be beneficial to seek professional help and professional techniques of combating stress. Talking to a counsellor or therapist can help to better identify areas in life that can be improved on.