Stress is the emotional and physical strain caused by our response to pressure from the outside world. It's almost impossible to live without some stress. And most of us wouldn't want to, because it gives life some spice and excitement. But if stress gets out of control, it may harm your health, your relationships, and your enjoyment of life.
Examples of "overload" situations are common in today's world:
Stress can cause both mental and physical symptoms. The effects of stress are different for different people.
The mental symptoms of stress include:
The physical symptoms of stress include:
We may think of stressful events as unpleasant ones, such as losing a job or having difficulties at home or at school. But changes for the better can also cause stress, like a new baby, a wedding, and a new house.
In an ideal world, maybe we could get away from stressful situations, or change them. Too often we can't do that - but we can learn to control our response to those situations. And we can develop techniques that will reduce the effects of stress on our mental and physical health.
Here are some different life events that are identified as stressful. They are rated on the "Holmes-Raye" scale, which scores them according to the stress they cause (the higher the number, the greater the stress).
What's Stressful For You?
What's stressful for you may be quite different from what's stressful to your best friend, your spouse, or the person next door. For example:
To understand what stress does to us, imagine you lived tens of thousands of years ago, at a time when humans were threatened by hungry animals such as saber-toothed tigers and wolves. Our caveman ancestors had to be able to react instantly, either by fighting the beasts or running away.
So humans evolved the ability to respond to a stressful situation instantly, by preparing the body for "fight or flight." Under sudden stress, you will get a burst of exceptional strength and endurance, as your body pumps out stress hormones:
Sometimes we can still benefit from this "fight or flight" response - like the case of a mother whose child was pinned under a concrete slab during a tornado. Under stress, she found the strength to lift the huge slab with her bare hands, even though it later took three men to move it.
But much of the time in modern life, the "fight or flight" response won't help. Yet those stress hormones still flood your system, preparing you for physical action. And if you are under stress frequently, it can harm your physical health.
How Stress Can Hurt Us
It has been estimated that two-thirds of all visits to physicians are for stress-related problems. Recent evidence indicates that the physical changes associated with stress may contribute to the leading causes of death - heart disease and cancer.
The effects of stress include the following:
Many stress-management experts recommend keeping a sense of humor during difficult situations. Laughing releases muscle tension and helps a person maintain perspective.
Activities as simple as watching a funny movie, listening to a tape of a comedian's routine, or sharing time with a humorous friend can provide a psychological lift and relieve stress.
Regular leisure activities are important in reducing stress. Many people benefit from making time for positive leisure pursuits rather than, for example, spending time watching television in the evening (although that, too, can be relaxing to some degree).
Relaxing hobbies include gardening, painting, bicycling, photography, carpentry, collecting, and many others. In order to obtain the most relaxation and enjoyment, the satisfaction should come in doing the hobby, not in the results. An individual who pursues gardening for relaxation may not grow prize-winning vegetables, but they can be eaten. An amateur photographer may not sell photographs, but they can be admired by friends and family.
Used for many years in Eastern cultures, meditation is becoming more widely accepted in the U.S. as a relaxation technique. Meditation reduces heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline levels, and skin temperature.
There are a variety of meditation techniques that share a common goal: to achieve relaxation by clearing the mind of stressful outside interferences. Meditation involves achieving a state of consciousness in which the individual focuses on a single thing, such as a key word, sound, or image.
Meditation techniques rely on quiet surroundings, sitting still, and a repetitive mental pattern. Various techniques are taught in instruction books and through religious and nonreligious organizations.
Biofeedback provides a way for people to learn to control activities over which they normally have no awareness, such as heart rate and muscle tension. It is considered by many health professionals to be a valuable therapeutic tool for reducing stress. Biofeedback involves no discomfort and no risk.
Biofeedback relies on sensitive electronic equipment. Sensors are placed on the body at various locations to measure skin temperature and muscle activity. The sensors are attached to a monitor that detects fluctuations when a person is anxious and displays signals in the form of beeps or light flashes. By watching the monitor, a person learns to control these stressful responses.
Massage is the gentle practice of manipulating the body's tissues in order to soothe and heal. It is one of the most ancient of the healing arts, and more people today are relying on it for natural, drug-free relief from the effects of busy, overstressed lives. Massage can relax the entire body and provide new energy that lingers long after the massage is over.
A number of research studies have shown that massage reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation and lymph flow, relaxes muscles, improves range of motion, and increases the production of endorphins, which are the body's own natural painkillers. There are a number of massage therapy techniques, including Swedish massage and Shiatsu.
Massages can be for the full body or particular areas of the body, such as the back and shoulders. Some people choose to wear some clothing during a massage; others prefer to undress or use a dressing gown. During a massage, the person is warmly covered, and only the part of the body on which the therapist is working is uncovered.
People react to stress in different ways. Once you identify your own signs of stress, they can serve as your personal early warning system.
Think of yourself as a car that's equipped with lights and gauges to warn you if any problems are developing. If you keep an eye on the gauges and catch the trouble early, the problem may be easy to fix. If you ignore the warning signs, you may be in for a major repair job.
You should assess yourself for four types of stress signs:
Use these checklists to identify your own signs of stress. There is space on the checklists for a second opinion, because people close to us may notice changes that we are not aware of.
Now go over the lists, and pick out the signs of stress that you consider the most important - the ones that are really interfering with the way you function and enjoy life. Then mark on the next chart whether they are related to your body, your feelings, your behavior, or your thoughts.
Your main signs of stress:
What you've recorded on these charts are your personal early warning signs of stress. When they occur, it's a sign that you should practice relaxation techniques to help keep stress from overwhelming you physically and emotionally.