What Is Stress?
Stress is a normal response to situational pressures or demands, especially if they are perceived as threatening or dangerous. Stress is the result of brain chemicals, called hormones, surging through the body. These hormones make people sweat, breathe quicker, tense their muscles, and prepare to act. When this happens, a person's built-in alarm system—their “fight-or-flight” response—becomes activated to protect them.
Stress is caused by major life events such as illness, the death of a loved one, a change in responsibilities or expectations at work, and job promotions, loss or change. Smaller, daily events also cause stress. This stress is not apparent to you, but the constant and cumulative impact of small stressors adds up to a big impact. If you allow the negative impact of the large and small stressors to take their toll, your physical and mental well-being will suffer.
A certain amount of stress is a normal part of daily life. Small doses of stress help people meet deadlines, be prepared for presentations, be productive and arrive on time for important events. However, long-term stress can become harmful. When stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged, the risks for mental health problems and medical problems increase.
Long-term stress increases the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, substance use problems, sleep problems, pain, and bodily complaints such as muscle tension. It also increases the risk of medical problems such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, a weakened immune system, difficulty conceiving, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
Signs & Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of stress may be cognitive (thinking-related), emotional, physical, or behavioural. Their severity can range from mild to severe.
Cognitive symptoms include:
• difficulty concentrating or thinking
• memory problems
• negativity or lack of self-confidence
• constant worrying
• difficulty making decisions.
Emotional symptoms include:
• low morale
• feeling hopeless or helpless
• feeling apprehensive, anxious, or nervous
• feeling depressed
• feeling unhappy or guilty
• feeling agitated or unable to relax.
Physical symptoms include:
• muscle tension or other physical pain or discomfort
• stomach problems
• nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
• loss of sex drive
• rapid heart rate
• high blood pressure
Behavioural symptoms include:
• changes in eating or sleeping patterns
• social withdrawal
• nervous habits such as nail biting, teeth grinding or foot tapping
• increased use of caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol or other drugs
• neglect of family or work responsibilities
• decline in performance or productivity.
Causes & Risk Factors
Stress often results if a person feels that there are high pressures or demands, that there is a threat to their well-being or that they do not have enough resources to cope with the demands.
Common sources of stress include a person's physical environment (e.g., noisy streets or an unsafe living space), relationships, work, life situations and major life changes. These situations can include negative events such as financial problems, relationship breakup, difficulties at work or school, injury, illness or death and grieving. However, situations leading to stress can also include positive changes, such as work promotions, getting married or buying a house.
Because stress is a normal part of life, everyone experiences it. However, the intensity, frequency and duration of stress will be different for each person.
Numerous factors can make the experience of stress worse, such as when people:
• have limited social support
• have multiple stressors
• have difficulty regulating or balancing their emotions
• have difficulty tolerating uncertainty or distress
• lack self-confidence or do not feel they can cope with the stressor
• interpret the stressor negatively, so that they feel powerless, overwhelmed, or helpless.
Stress and Anxiety
Often people will ask what the difference is between stress and anxiety because the terms tend to be used interchangeably. There are differences, but they are far more similar and malleable, than they appear. Here are seven facts that may help you to distinguish the two concepts.
1. Stress has to do with how we cope with factors that affect us internally and externally. When we feel pressure, stress is generated. The higher the pressure, the higher the stress.
2. Anxiety, on the other hand, tends to be generated internally and has to do with our perceptions of what is demanded and our resources to cope.
3. Stress tends to flow from the experience of pressure, while anxiety tends to relate to our feelings about our potential experience and how we cope. In other words, stress refers to our experience under pressure and anxiety relates to our feelings about that experience.
4. Stress tends to be situational and refer to a present and real demand. For example, our spouse expects us to pick up the dry cleaning, our children expect us to pick them up from school, a client expects us to deliver a product. We feel stress as we do what is needed to comply with life’s demands. It is about “doing.” Anxiety tends to be about the future, and what may happen, and how we feel. It is a fear or nervousness about what might happen, a feeling of wanting to do something.
5. Stress often feels situational and out of our control. It can be seen as a badge of honor or a status symbol. Anxiety, on the other hand, is neither associated with feelings of pride nor a sense of doing our best. Instead, it is usually experienced as a weakness, a mental failing, and therefore something to be ashamed of.
6. Stress and anxiety are physiologically indistinguishable. They both share the “flight or fight” survival reaction. One person’s experience with stress may be another person’s experience with anxiety.
7. The only thing that distinguishes stress from anxiety is what each of these words mean to you.
How we label our experience can transform how we experience it. How we think about our experience is what matter most. So, for stress and anxiety it is important to recognize that stress tends to be short term and in response to a recognized threat. Anxiety can linger and sometimes seem as if noting is triggering it.
Stress and anxiety are perfectly normal human reactions to threatening or worrying situations. People can manage their stress and anxiety with relaxation techniques and talking to a supportive person. When the feelings are interfering with their everyday life it may be the time to speak with a doctor.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Practicing self-care is important for reducing stress. Some good ways to reduce and manage stress include eating well, exercising regularly, trying to reduce negativity, prioritizing leisure time, limiting alcohol and caffeine, avoiding cigarettes and other drugs, and adopting proper sleep hygiene.
Other ways to help reduce and cope with stress include:
- prioritizing, organizing and delegating tasks
- seeking support from family and friends
- attending a support group or stress management program, consulting a health care professional, or accessing self-help materials.
Once a person feels a sense of emotional well-being, they feel stronger and more able to bounce back from stress. This helps them feel that they can cope better with difficult life events.
Severe stress may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. Seek professional help if the signs and symptoms of stress have been present for a long period of time; if your functioning at work, school, home or socially is affected; or if you experience increasing stress and emotional difficulties. Recovery from chronic stress is possible.
Where can I go for help?
Your family doctor is a key helping person. Your employer or school counsellor can refer you to an agency or therapist that can help. Most companies have an EFAP Program so ask for a contact number or brochure. There are many provincial and local mental health associations. These are excellent sources for aid, advice, or references. They can refer you to community services available to you under your health plan.
Jocelyn Herrett MSW DSW RSW