What Is Stress?
Stress is a normal physical response to situations or events that upset our normal balance resulting in a feeling of strain and pressure. Stress can be external and related to our environment such as driving in peak hour traffic, working in a very busy office or preparing for a bushfire in our immediate location. Stress can also be internal when we feel that the demands of the day exceed our ability and resources to cope effectively with them.
Not all stress is bad
Stress can help motivate us to get a task finished, perform well in an exam or physical challenge or react very quickly in a dangerous situation such as, reacting to someone braking suddenly in front of us when we are driving. When stress is prolonged and the perceived stressor interferes with our ability to function well we can enter a state of distress. Prolonged stress can have harmful effects on our health.
What Happens In Our Bodies When We Are Stressed?
All of us suffer stress at some time. When we are stressed our bodies produce a range of hormones and chemicals including cortisol and adrenaline which enable us to react to the stressor. This is known as the “fight or flight” response. These hormones cause physical changes in our body such as increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, metabolism and muscle tension to enable us to respond to the stressor. Blood supply is diminished to non essential areas including the digestive system and skin. Every system in our body is affected by these hormones and chemicals. All of us have experienced a sudden jolt of fear and energy which allows us to withdraw from or manage a dangerous situation. When we look back at the situation (after it resolves) we can identify factors such as fast recognition of the danger and a speedy response. Eg braking suddenly in the car, grabbing our child by the arm when they are about to run out onto a busy road or running away from a snake. In the immediate aftermath, once the danger is managed or removed, we may experience feelings of shakiness, become conscious of a rapid heart rate and breathing and may feel nauseous. This happens quickly and is followed by a relaxation response once the danger has passed. The stressor triggers our response to the stress and once action has been taken our bodies return quickly to a normal state.
Unfortunately our bodies are unable to distinguish between the various stressors requiring urgent action (known as acute or short term stress), such as braking suddenly to avoid a car accident, or the insidious stress (known as chronic or prolonged stress) that we can experience on a day to day basis eg a demanding job, having too many demands on our time or financial pressures. When we are under a constant barrage of stressors we are unable to experience the relaxation response. Our bodies still produce the same stress hormones in these prolonged stress situations and as a result our health can suffer in many ways.
It is important to learn to manage stress otherwise it can have serious negative health effects and interfere with our ability to function in every area of our lives including our relationships and employment.
Tips for coping
Exercise regularly – this helps to release our “feel good” hormones called Endorphins. Not only do they help us feel good but they also help to counteract the hormones produced in response to stress. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise such as brisk walking 5 or more days of the week. Find an exercise that you enjoy such as dancing, gardening, joining an exercise class etc.
Step into the sunshine – walk outside in the bright day light, the Vitamin D we absorb from the sunlight helps to boost mood enhancing chemicals and helps us produce the hormones needed to establish and maintain a healthy sleep pattern.
Positive self talk – use the power of your mind to help yourself relax. When you feel stressed use positive statements like, “Just relax” or “I’m not going to let this bother me”. Concentrate on things you can do instead of things you can’t do.
Family and friends – Family and friends can listen and help you to keep things in perspective and assist you to come up with solutions to your problem/s.
Relaxation – Take slow deep breaths. There are many CD’s, DVD’s and classes where you can learn excellent relaxation techniques. Do something that you enjoy, such as taking time out to be creative by doing a hobby, take a relaxing bath, go fishing, read a good book, listen to some relaxing music or go for a walk.
Balance your life – Make sure that you have a good balance between work, rest and relaxation. It is OK to say no to extra unnecessary duties or tasks. Prioritise your duties and responsibilities. Delegate tasks to others who may be willing to help.
Deal with anger – It is OK to be angry and to express your anger as long as you do not hurt anyone or damage anything. Unexpressed anger can lead to ill health. Write out your angry thoughts, scream into a pillow, harness your anger and utilise it in a physical manner to weed the garden, tidy a drawer or fix something you have been meaning to do. Talk to a Health Professional if you feel stuck in your angry thoughts.
Look at the underlying cause of your stress – Identify the cause of your stress and the things that you can take responsibility for changing such as healthy eating, exercise etc. Don’t ignore or try to hide stress by using alcohol or other drugs. Stress will not go away unless you make some changes or learn new ways to help.
Situations over which you have no control – it is important to recognise that there are some things over which you have no control like traffic lights, the weather or other people’s behaviour. You may find it helpful to talk to someone who can help you develop healthy strategies in dealing with situations in which you have no control.
Eat a healthy diet – make sure that you enjoy a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish or meat alternatives, legumes, nuts and seeds, low fat dairy or alternatives. Make sure that you eat regularly as this helps to stabilise blood glucose levels your mood. Limit fatty, salty and sugary foods.
Limit alcohol intake – if you choose to drink. Drinking alcohol can contribute to depression as alcohol is a depressant. It can also contribute to weight gain and interfere with a wide range of medications.
Limit Caffeine drinks – such as tea, coffee, cola and “energy” drinks – these can heighten the symptoms of stress and interfere with sleep patterns. Try herbal teas or switch to de–caffeinated tea, coffee or alternatives. Make water your preferred drink of choice. Aim to drink 2 litres of water each day unless otherwise indicated by your doctor.
Sleep well – try to get a good 8 hours of sleep each night.
Seek help – if you feel that you need help to manage your stress talk to your doctor, a Counsellor or ask for a Referral to see a Psychologist. There are also many phone and internet resources where you can speak to someone. Remember that it is very important to seek help if you are unable to lessen the impact or feelings of stress on yourself by following the above suggestions. This is particularly important if the stressor/s are unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future or you are in a stressful situation that is out of your control. Your GP is a valuable resource as he or she should be able to link you into a good Counsellor or Psychologist under various Medicare funding schemes, who can help you develop healthy coping strategies. Access to a Social Worker may be able to help you find financial or other assistance through various government or non–government agencies.