Stress: Symptoms, Causes, & Management


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What is stress?

Stress is the primary and immediate response of your nervous system when it thinks your body is under immediate threat or in danger. Stress is the way your body seeks to protect you by making your senses heightened and keeping you focused and alert on the source of your stress. In situations of high emergency, or in exciting, dangerous, or threatening situations the body is known to release a surge of stress hormones that include adrenaline and cortisol.  

Flight or Flight Response of the Body

Adrenaline is also known as the “fight or flight” hormone. The rush of adrenaline and cortisol during times of emergency or danger enables your body to react swiftly and take some action. A rush of-of these hormones increases your heartbeat, and the blood flow towards your brain and muscles and boosts your energy levels by stimulating your body to use up the sugar as fuel. Your senses become highly alert. 

The body during these times kicks into what is known as the “flight or fight” response. You either get ready to fight or to flee. 

When in danger the stress caused by these hormones is actually a gift for you can launch into action immediately. Or even in instances such as a work deadline or an examination, the stress levels may rise due to which you swing into action. 

Freeze - The Third Response of the Body 

Unknown to most people, there is a third mode of response by the body that stress can cause, i.e. freeze. When some people perceive danger their nervous system causes them to lock down, or freeze, or become numb. Some examples are being unable to move in the face of great danger such as a truck or a car approaching us at great speed, or holding our breath or shallow breathing. The easiest way to understand that we were in a “freeze mode” is when we suddenly slump down, or start up after being numb or unable to move for quite a few minutes, or suddenly letting out a deep breath or a sigh. 

Now flight, fright, or even freeze is how our bodies are designed to counteract danger. 

The problem begins when your body or your nervous system begins to go into overdrive by signaling for the release of the stress hormones, even during situations which are not dangerous or physically threatening. 

Stress is designed to make you act swiftly or even lie low (freeze) to protect yourself in situations of life or death.

What is chronic stress? 

Chronic stress is what a majority of people suffer from in today’s world. As mentioned earlier stress is designed to make you act swiftly to protect yourself in situations of life or death. The problem starts when your body, or more precisely your nervous system is unable to differentiate between real life-threatening situations and daily struggles and challenges, such as a work deadline, monthly bills, emotional problems in the family, argument with a colleague etc. 

When your nervous system is unable to differentiate between actual life-threatening situations and daily challenges, it gets used to triggering stress quickly and very frequently. The stress then becomes very difficult to switch off. Your body perceives everything starting from an argument with a loved one to workplace deadlines as life-threatening. 

The body thus remains in a heightened state of chronic stress continuously that can cause serious health problems. 

What are the causes of stress? 

Anything that you perceive as overburdening to you or anything that puts high demands on you can cause you stress.  

Your own internal fear and worries about the future too can cause you stress. 

At the end of the day, it all depends upon your perception. For some marriage may be a happy event, for others a stressful one. 

For some getting a promotion is an event worth celebrating, for others it is a burden, for now, there are more responsibilities. Some common causes of stress include:

  • Difficult relationships
  • Financial problems
  • Major life changes such as a divorce, death of a loved one, a marriage, imprisonment or a relocation, a grave injury or accident, retirement
  • Overwork
  • A negative mindset
  • Unable to accept the uncertainty of the future
  • Being perfectionistic
  • Inability to be flexible and adjust

What are the symptoms of stress?

Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms which are often disregarded by people until they manifest in the body as health conditions. Stress affects all aspects of your life. The symptoms can manifest: 

  • Emotionally as:
    • Depression or constant sadness
    • Frustration and anxiety
    • Irritability
    • Anger
    • Feeling a loss of control in life
    • Mood swings
    • Getting overwhelmed easily
    • Constant disturbing thoughts
    • Loneliness
    • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Behaviourally as:
    • Overeating or eating less
    • Insomnia or sleep too much
    • Isolating oneself from others
    • Procrastinating
    • Being irresponsible
    • Substance abuse such as overindulging in alcohol, smoking, or taking drugs
    • Displaying nervous behaviours such as pacing, hair pulling, nail biting
  • Cognitively as:
    • Forgetfulness
    • Inability to focus or pay attention
    • Poor decision making
    • Being overly pessimistic and focusing more on the negative
    • Having non-stop anxious racing thoughts
    • Constantly fretting and worrying
  • Physically as:
    • Pains in the body and muscles
    • Rapid and shallow breathing
    • Dry mouth
    • Loss of sex drive
    • Diarrhea or constipation
    • Clenched jaw
    • Nausea 
    • Dizziness
    • Frequently suffering from colds or infections
    • Elevated heart rate
    • Chest pain
    • Constant fatigue
    • Tension headaches
    • Sleeplessness
    • Nervousness in the body such as shaking or sweaty hands

What are the health problems that can be caused by chronic stress?

Chronic stress can lead to a wide range of health conditions such as:

How much stress is considered to be excessive stress?

This again varies from person to person. Some people may be able to take a lot of pressure and even perform exceptionally well under pressure, while others crumble down in day-to-day situations. It all depends upon a person’s perception of what is tolerable and what is not. 

How to manage stress? 

If a bridge carries too much weight it will ultimately collapse. Do not wait till you collapse or have a mental or emotional breakdown. Manage your stress before it damages you. 

You can start by:

  • Learning to say “No” to people: The most common cause of stress is having too little time and too much to do. In such a situation, additionally, most of the people say “yes” to more work because they find it difficult to say “no”. There could a various reasons for being unable to say “no” such as the most prevalent one, wanting to be liked, or a fear of rejection or missed opportunities. You need to be able to draw boundaries and say “no” when you know you are overstretched for time. You need not be rude. Remember you can speak obligingly but need not always oblige.

  • Get enough sleep: People require at least eight hours of sleep. Unfortunately, many people are not able to sleep because of too much work or too many thoughts in their heads. Here are a few dos and don’ts to get that much-needed sleep:
    • Do not keep your T.V. in the bedroom.
    • Log off from all your devices, laptop, smartphone etc, an hour before you go to bed. The light from these devices is meant to keep you alert and active. So take your eyes off all the screen an hour before you go to bed.
    • Have your dinner at least two hours before sleeping this ensures proper digestion before you go to sleep.
    • Stop doing any mentally demanding work at least two hours before sleeping. Else it keeps your brain in overdrive.
    • Just before your dinner, you could take a warm bath which will soothe your nerves.
    • Read a book in bed before going to sleep. (Not a kindle but a hard copy). This will slowly tire your eyes and calm your mind. You’ll be asleep before long.  
  • Exercise: When you have disturbing thoughts stop doing what you’re doing and go take a brisk walk. Exercising whether in a gym or doing yoga at home or attending a dance class, will calm down and tire your agitated nerves and help you have restful sleep at night. Make exercising a routine practice for at least 30 minutes a day.

  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol: When stressed people usually turn to these kinds of stimulants which actually stimulates your stress further instead of reducing it. Swap these substances for eight to ten glasses of water a day, herbal teas, and fresh fruit juices (without added sugar). You will notice an immediate change in your body and in your mental state.

  • Practice Mindfulness Techniques & Meditations: Mindfulness techniques and various forms of meditations are known to completely erase stress from your life. What’s more, these practices actually make you more energetic, efficient and productive. There are various forms of meditations practices such as Vipassana, the self-inquiry method, Zen, Mantra meditation, practicing affirmations, transcendental meditations, Yoga meditations, Chinese meditations (such as Taoist meditations, Qigong), and guided meditations. Explore any or all of them and find out what form of practice you like the best and what suits you the most. Then make it a daily practice. For some of you, relaxation can be a challenge as the body has learned to be alert and stressed constantly over the years. But remember what is learned can also be unlearnt. And it does not require much effort. In fact, it requires you not putting an effort and stressing over relaxing! As your body learns to let go of control and relax, at a daily allotted time for relaxing and meditation, it will swiftly let go of the stress.

  • Journal: Journaling can bring you great insights and self-awareness. Journaling can make your priorities in life clear to you. It is also a highly effective stress management tool. As you journal you will become aware of what triggers stress in you. Of what situations, people, actions trigger your stress and how it all makes you feel emotionally and physically. This will enable you to be ready, avoid the stressful situations or people, or even counter the situations and people without getting stressed. Instead of being on the defensive you can actually learn to be empowered while dealing with such situations and people.

  • Prioritise: Another common reason for everyday stress is because people do not know what they want in life and what is the most important thing they need to focus on at this moment. Journaling can help you understand yourself and what you want and prioritizing your goals. Make to-do lists. Do not overboard and put in too many things on your to-do list. Over-expectation is another problem that stresses out people even though they are not aware. Accept that you cannot do everything at once. Take big goals and break them into small tasks and spread the tasks over a longer time-frame. Create a daily to-do list the previous evening itself and to not overwhelm yourself, keep the list short. Include break times or relaxation times on the list. This will make your time and schedule more manageable.  

  • Consider Counselling: Counselling or talk therapy can be of immense help if you are highly stressed. A counselor can help you understand things from a different perspective and can bring much-needed clarity to a situation as this is a person who is not emotionally involved with you in any way. A counselor can help you see the bigger picture as well as bring clarity to what needs to be done at the moment. There are also a lot of tools and skills you can learn during talk therapy that will help you put things in perspective and manage your time well without getting stressed.
Would you like to consult a doctor for Stress ?

Did you know?

Stress is a response of the hormones in your body to perceived danger

Stress starts when the hypothalamus, a part of your brain sends signals to your entire nervous system and kidneys when it perceives a situation as dangerous. In turn, as a reaction the kidneys in your body release the stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol.

Women are more prone to stress than men

Women are more vulnerable to stress than men and are also more likely to display physical and emotional symptoms. In fact, women are twice as likely to experience major depression due to stress than men.

Long term stress can have serious consequences

Prolonged stress can cause serious physical issues as well as mental disabilities.

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