The World Health Organization calls stress “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” Stress resulting in illness is the causative factor underlying more than 70% of all visits to the family doctor, medical doctors suggest. What is stress? We all talk about it but what does ‘stress’ mean and how does it affect our bodies?
Dr. Hans Selye, who first noted and described the concept of stress, defines stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” Stress is neither good nor bad. The effect of the stress is not determined by the stress itself, rather it is determined by how we handle the stress.
Effects of Stress
1. “Emergency Response” The emergency response mechanism activates with a physiological change when people believe they are in physical or mortal danger. Pupils dilate, blood pressure increases, and the production of stress hormones increase. The body prepares within seconds to respond, which is known as the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome. The adrenal glands pour out adrenaline and the production of other hormones is increased by the quickly reacting pituitary-adrenal-cortical system of the brain.
This is a healthy, adaptive response to immediate danger but if continually activated, this emergency response may cause a constantly higher-than-normal level of hormone production that can eventually cause physical wear-and-tear on the body. Health problems related to this constant high level of response include hypertension, headaches, ulcers, heart disease, and increased vulnerability to diabetes and colitis.
2. “General Adaptation Syndrome” In studies, Selye came to believe that diseases of adaptation such as hypertension could be produced by abnormal or excessive reaction to stress. The body would increase its supply of hormones in order to be ready for action to stress. Over a prolonged period of time, excessive stress leads to distress and the accompanying physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health problems.
Contributing factors to distress include a) your attitude to life and b) your mood (optimistic or pessimistic). Both help to create the atmosphere that assists your defence system in repairing small wounds, bruises, and infections. This is also the system that tries to destroy strange cells such as those of cancer, including leukaemia.
In mastering stress, you have to figure out what you are doing that contributes to your problem/challenge and change it. The four categories of change include: change your behaviour, change your thinking, change your lifestyle choices, and/or change the situations you are in. Symptoms of overstress include fatigue, aches and pains, anxiety, problems sleeping, depression, and lack of joy in your life
Practical Steps to Stress Management and Creating Balance
1. Make your life regular like ‘clock work.’ Go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
2. Give yourself a break today.
3. Say ‘No’ more often when other people want your time. This includes social engagements, the family dinner on Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.
4. Postpone making any changes in your living environment if you have been coping with undue stress. Change of any kind is stressful and limiting it until later is a good strategy if you are under a lot of pressure.
5. Reduce the number of hours you spend at work or school. If you are a work-a-holic or school-a-holic you need to reduce the energy drain on your body. TAKE SOME TIME OFF.
6. Nutritional eating habits and eating small meals helps to keep your blood sugar stabilised. Many people reach for something high in sugar content when feeling stressed which compounds the problem. Eat more vegetables.
7. Rest your mind, as mind activities alleviate stress. These mind activities include reading, working on a craft, listening to music, playing a musical instrument, meditation, self-relaxation, dancing, and biofeedback.
8. Have a worry time if you must worry. When you find yourself worrying over a problem, set aside a time (I suggest to my students 7:30pm on Tuesday night) and then put off worrying until that time. Chances are you will not even remember what you were stressing yourself about.
9. Book time for yourself. In your daily or weekly schedule book time first for yourself and then the other activities you are involved in. Don’t let anything, except an emergency, usurp your commitment to yourself.
10. Have a massage or another form of self-care activity.