Life is full of many hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many people, stress is so common that it has become a way of life. Stress isn’t always bad and in small doses it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price. You can protect yourself by recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
What is Stress?
Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” reaction, or the stress response.
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life. This stress response can give you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. It also helps you rise to meet challenges, keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV
Symptoms of Stress
It’s important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently. Not only can overwhelming stress lead to serious mental and physical health problems, it can also take a toll on your relationships at home, work, and school.
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you or forces you to adjust can be stressful. It can be positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or getting a promotion.
Causes of Stress
Not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be self-generated like worrying excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life. What causes stress can also depend on your perception of it. Something that’s stressful to you may not faze someone else and they may even enjoy it. If your morning commute makes you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late, someone else may think the trip is relaxing because they have enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.
Your body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation. If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency stress response may be on most of the time. The more your body’s stress system is activated, the harder it is to shut off.
Consequences of Stress
Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Unchecked stress is undeniably damaging. You have more control over your stress levels than you might think. Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that only compound the problem. You might drink too much to unwind at the end of a stressful day, fill up on comfort food, zone out in front of the TV or computer for hours, use pills to relax, or relieve stress by lashing out at other people. But take heed….there are many healthier ways to cope with stress and its symptoms.
Everyone has a unique response to stress and no single method works for everyone or in every situation, so try to experiment with different techniques and strategies. Focus on what makes you feel calm and in control. Managing stress is all about taking charge. Start by taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation.
Treatment Options for Stress