Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Some stress is beneficial as it motivates people to complete tasks. However, chronic or long-term stress can have detrimental effects on physical and mental wellbeing. Steps need to be taken to reduce the duration and intensity of it, moreover, developing coping strategies to prevent the negative effects of stress.
What is stress?
Physical and emotional tension can be defined as stress. An overwhelming thought/feeling or situation may trigger it. It can make us feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. It is a reaction to the challenges we face daily (e.g., meeting deadlines). When we feel stressed, it’s our body telling us that there is danger present in our environment, and we need to act on it. Hence, our fight or flight response is activated.
Two main types of stressors are identified:
- Acute stress is short-term and goes away quickly (e.g., avoiding a road accident). It’s essential to manage dangerous situations. Contrary to belief, stress also occurs when we experience something new or exciting (e.g., a new job; a promotion)
- Chronic stress lasts for a longer period (e.g., a continuous financial crisis, unhappy marriage) that is considered chronic for weeks or months. Once you realise that your stress is chronic, it’s essential to find ways to manage it or lead to serious health conditions.
Symptoms of stress and anxiety are almost the same, so how can we determine what we are feeling? We feel stressed when there is an existing factor (i.e., stressor) in the environment; however, anxiety is the stress that continues even after the “stressor” is gone.
The effects of stress
Our body releases hormones when we feel stressed, and these hormones make us alert, which causes muscles to be tense and increase heart rate. These reactions are good because now you are ready to respond. This is how our body protects itself from the threat. But when you have chronic stress, your body stays alert, even if there is no threat or danger. This leads to serious health conditions, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Skin problems
- Mental illnesses (i.e., depression/anxiety/addictions)
- Menstrual problems
It is important to note that if you already have a health condition (physical or mental), stress can have detrimental effects on your wellbeing. If this is something you need help with, please do not hesitate to speak to one of our counsellors at Halcyon Counselling Clinic.
When does stress become harmful?
Stress can cause physical and emotional symptoms which can go unnoticed. Lookout for warning signs listed below and immediately take steps if you experience any of these:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Frequent aches and pains
- Lack of energy or focus
- Sexual problems
- Stiff jaw or neck
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Upset stomach
- Use of alcohol or drugs to relax
- Weight loss or gain
What is an Acute Stress Reaction (ASR):
ASR appears quickly after an unexpected and overwhelming physical or mental stressor presents itself (e.g., bereavement, road accident or an assault). If immediate action is not taken to prevent ASR symptoms, it quickly develops into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – 80% of people with ASR develop PTSD within 6 months or later.
Symptoms of ASR include anxiety and dissociative behaviour following exposure to a traumatic, unexpected life experience. A person with ASR finds it hard to handle emotions, experiences mood swings, becomes depressed and anxious. They may also face difficulty sleeping. Normal and frequent events trigger flashbacks and other distressing emotions. Some individuals may feel physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate, excessive sweating, headaches, chest pain and nausea.
Symptoms of ASR can be resolved by engaging inappropriate care. However, if left untreated could turn into PTSD. Symptoms can be eased by just talking to friends and family and making sense of the situation.
- Identify the sources of stress in your life. This can be done by daily journaling and finding a pattern.
- Evaluate your coping strategies – is it good (i.e., meditating) or harmful (i.e., drugs & alcohol).
- Psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy help to identify and re-evaluate thoughts and behaviours that maintain anxiety and low mood.
- Lifestyle management including supportive listening, and engaging in relaxing practices such as exercise, yoga and meditating. Regular meditation can help people with ASR, as it is a way to sit with uncomfortable mental experiences and calm the body’s fight or flight response.
- Betablockers, in moderate or extreme cases, antidepressants can be prescribed to an individual to ease symptoms. It works best when combined with counselling.