What is stress?
Stress is a (usually) negative mental state that is the result of life’s strains on your well-being. We’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives, and are likely to experience it again. Nobody experiences stress the same way, and what might cause stress in some people, does not necessarily cause it in others. It usually doesn’t necessarily associate itself with a bad prognosis, but that doesn’t mean that you should have to endure it. For the sake of your health, it is important to identify stressors in your life, and learn to circumvent their effects.
What causes stress and what are its consequences?
The difficulty in defining stress is in part due to the vast array of stressors life has to offer, and the fact that each of these have differing effects on different people. Broadly, common causes of stress often involve a change in lifestyle or a change in our ability to adapt to our lifestyle.
Common causes thus may include illness, work overload, changes in personal or professional relationships, pregnancy, a change in work-related circumstances (unemployment, unexpected termination or retirement), legal or financial concerns. Any one or combination of stressors may seem manageable at first, but develop into stress, the consequences of which range in severity.
At the lower end of the scale, stress can lead to changes in sleep patterns, a tendency to over or under-eat. You might notice an increase in frequency of headaches and digestive issues. In the same way that you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re in love, stress can have pretty debilitating effects on your digestive system, including but not restricted to diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, or just general discomfort.
On the more severe end of the scale are changes in cardiovascular (heart) function, severely disturbed sleep patterns (e.g. insomnia), and burnout, a psychological state from which it is sometimes impossible to recover, characterised by fatigue, depressive thoughts, mood swings, and an inability to self-generate motivation.
What are the anatomical indications of stress?
Feel free to skip this part as I realise not everybody is as passionate about neurobiology as I am!
Simply put, the body operates on the premise of balance, which we call homeostasis.
The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis serves to regulate our body’s reactions to stress, and directly influences the many other integral systems of our body (including the: metabolic, cardiovascular, immune, reproductive, and central nervous systems), in order to achieve perpetual homeostasis. Stress comes from a dysregulation in favour of an unbalanced HPA axis: a lack of homeostasis.
When the system responsible for regulating our sleep cycle, immunity, heart and digestive functions isn’t balanced, we face an inevitable loss of function in some if not all of these areas, the consequences of which I have touched on above.
What are some effective ways to deal with stress?
Now that you are aware of just how deeply stress can reside within us, it might be worth discussing some ways which might serve to alleviate or prevent stress.
An effective means to target the nature of your stress, meditation can help improve your psychological well-being, help you overcome the triggers of your stress leading to the treatment of the symptoms. Recommended for the patient, and introspective types!
Hobbies / Entertainment
More of a short term solution, watching a bit of Netflix or partaking in a friendly game of pool with colleagues is a sure-fire way to unwind after a hard day at work. Positive social interactions excite the release the oxytocin, a hormone which contributes to happiness and actively counteracts stress.
Sports / Exercise
Exercise is so important for your psychological and physical well-being and cannot possibly be stressed enough. Remember all the systems I mentioned above that suffer from the consequences of an unbalanced HPA axis? Sports can counteract that. It improves your immunity, increases blood flow to your heart, brain and extremities, builds your muscles, helps your self-confidence, and release a host of hormones the sole reason for which are to make you feel happy.
After a stressful week, there really isn’t anything much more unwinding than a professional full body massage. Releasing equally important amounts of Dopamine (the aforementioned ‘happy hormones’), massages smooth out all the tensions in your muscles, easing any head, neck and back pain, common symptoms of stress and anxiety. If the last thing you want to do on the weekend is drive out to your local spa, then you can always rely on a mobile massage therapist to come directly to you.
How to prevent stress?
Now that I’ve probably reminded you how stressed you are, I want to share some ways I’ve found to prevent stress from taking too much of a toll on my daily life.
- Take breaks: This is so important, and yet so often overlooked. Even when on a tight schedule, it’s integral to take frequent 5 to 10 minute breaks, to walk away from your desk, look away from your computer screen and take in a breath of fresh air. Make yourself a cup of tea, rehydrate or just stretch your legs!
- Don’t let life overwhelm you: if you feel like the stress is boiling inside of you, look internally to see what might be causing it. It might well be within your control to stop it from taking over.
- Exercise regularly: I already mentioned this above, but I cannot reiterate it often enough. After a hard day, I find that a nice long run evacuates any lingering tension in my mind. It clears my head, and the sweatier I get, the better I feel afterwards! Find a form of exercise that suits your lifestyle needs, whether it’s a game of tennis or a long walk with your puppy.
- Find an outlet by which to channel any negativity: Like sports, some hobbies can help clear your head and manage your emotional well-being by distracting your mind. These can include starting collections, puzzles, board games, painting, music, or writing.
- Talk about it: this is the most important by far! If you feel stressed and overwhelmed, don’t ever be afraid to talk about it with someone. Your friends and family have almost certainly experienced similar situations, and it can really help to put words to your feelings. You might even benefit from a visit to your GP.
Don’t let stress consume you! Here is another blog post to some simple mindfulness exercises you can try to help keep stress and anxiety at bay.