What is stress?
Stress is often described as a feeling of being overloaded, wound-up tight, tense and worried. We all experience stress at times. It can sometimes help to motivate us to get a task finished, or perform well. But stress can also be harmful if we become over-stressed and it interferes with our ability to get on with our normal life for too long.
What are the signs of stress?
When we face a stressful event, our bodies respond by activating the nervous system and releasing hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause physical changes in the body which help us to react quickly and effectively to get through the stressful situation. This is sometimes called the ‘fight or flight’ response. The hormones increase our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolism and muscle tension. Our pupils dilate and our perspiration rate increases.
While these physical changes help us try to meet the challenges of the stressful situation, they can cause other physical or psychological symptoms if the stress is ongoing and the physical changes don’t settle down.
These symptoms can include:
• Headaches, other aches and pains
• Sleep disturbance, insomnia
• Upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhoea
• Anger, irritability
• Feeling overwhelmed and out of control
• Feeling moody, tearful
• Difficulty concentrating
• Low self-esteem, lack of confidence
• High blood pressure
• Weakened immune system
• Heart disease
Types of stress
Sometimes stress can be brief, and specific to the demands and pressures of a particular situation, such as a deadline, a performance or facing up to a difficult challenge or traumatic event. This type of stress often gets called acute stress.
Episodic acute stress
Some people seem to experience acute stress over and over. This is sometimes referred to as episodic acute stress. These kind of repetitive stress episodes may be due to a series of very real stressful challenges, for example, losing a job, then developing health problems, followed by difficulties for a child in the school setting. For some people, episodic acute stress is a combination of real challenges and a tendency to operate like a ‘stress machine’. Some people tend to worry endlessly about bad things that could happen, are frequently in a rush and impatient with too many demands on their time, which can contribute to episodic acute stress.
The third type of stress is called chronic stress. This involves ongoing demands, pressures and worries that seem to go on forever, with little hope of letting up. Chronic stress is very harmful to people’s health and happiness. Even though people can sometimes get used to chronic stress, and may feel they do not notice it so much, it continues to wear people down and has a negative effect on their relationships and health.
When to seek professional help
If high levels of stress continue for a long period of time, or are interfering with you enjoying a healthy life, it is advisable to seek professional help. A mental health professional, like a psychologist, can help you identify behaviours and situations that are contributing to high stress, and help you to make changes to the things that are within your control. Seeking help can be one way to manage your stress effectively.