Although stress on its own is not a disease, if it develops long term it can lead to stress-related physical and psychological illnesses and can make existing medical conditions worse. (WebMD) So, it is in our interest to gain an understanding of stress and how it affects our health and well-being. We can easily feel overwhelmed by stressful experiences in our life. But, when armed with knowledge and understanding, we are empowered – we have the tools to combat and minimise any negative impact that stress might cause. And, managing our stress levels in positive ways can help us to avoid developing stress-related illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, and help us to live healthier.
What is Stress?
Stress is nature’s way of keeping us safe. It is our body’s natural life-saving mechanism which provides us with what’s known as the fight/flight response to danger. In basic terms, when under threat, perceived or real, our bodies react to help us. Our automatic nervous system kicks into action, and we experience a heightened sense of awareness. A complex network of hormones and chemicals such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. Among other things, our blood pumps faster and is diverted away from our digestive system to our muscles to prepare them for action. This remarkable mechanism gets our bodies ready to stand and fight or to run for our life and has helped humankind to survive throughout the ages. (If a sabre-toothed tiger jumped out from behind a bush, our primal ancestors would have been ready for it!)
When we are fearful of someone or something, our bodies perceive danger, and we experience stress to help us to survive – to prepare us for fight or flight. But, when we experience prolonged stress for whatever reason, our bodies can’t cope. Our heart, muscles, internal organs, etc., are unable to sustain this type of pressure – but they keep trying to, which puts a tremendous strain on our body and can lead to a variety of problems affecting our health. When our bodies are going through such turmoil we can't think rationally and can become aggressive, over-anxious or ‘shut down' at the slightest provocation or event. We can often feel overwhelmed and helpless. What's more, stress-related illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure are often exacerbated.
Causes of Stress
In modern society, fear is usually still at the core of stress. Fear of losing our job, our income or our home can have a significant impact on our stress levels. A family crisis, loss of a loved one, the break-up of a relationship, financial worries, and severe illness are examples of contributory factors which could lead to increased and prolonged stress levels – all or any of which can be detrimental to our health and our daily lives.
Unhealthy Aspects of Stress
Unfortunately, many of us turn to unhealthy means to help us to cope with stress. Over-dependency on drugs and alcohol, eating disorders, self-harm, and lack of personal hygiene are common factors. These, in turn, can result in obesity, diabetes, liver and kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, skin conditions, recurring migraines, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders along with other physical and psychological conditions.
Positive Ways to Combat Stress
There are quite a few effective ways of tackling stress which may also help to keep it from becoming prolonged. Regardless if a situation or problem appears insurmountable or hopeless, there is always a way forward. Since no single approach suits all, it is important to find one (or more) that is relevant and can be applied in your particular circumstances.
- Relaxation – learning to relax is one of the best remedies for managing stress. Breathing steadily and deeply returns your body to its pre ‘fight/flight’ mode allowing your heart to slow down, your muscles to relax, and your mind to stop racing.
- Exercise – regular exercise helps you to release built-up energy and keep your body in shape which can help ward off the negative impacts of stress.
- Meditation – focusses your mind on positive outcomes and away from feelings of negativity.
- Healthy Eating – eating healthy food provides nourishment for our bodies and helps us to fight illness and disease.
- Therapy – taking part in therapy allows you to talk about your problems with someone who is non-judgemental and who listens which can provide relief for pent-up emotions.
Hobbies, socialising, volunteering, etc. can be added, as they also help us to feel happier in general.
Stress can be our friend, and it can save our life as nature intended. But, if prolonged, stress can be our enemy as it has such a negative impact on our health and well-being. However, understanding stress and its effect on our body can empower us to take positive action. – Managing our stress levels and implementing useful coping strategies can help us to keep stress and its related illnesses at bay, and help us to live healthier and more fulfilling lives.