Stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain. Stress is your body's response to anything that requires attention or action. Stress can be short-term or long-term. Both can cause a wide range of symptoms, but chronic stress can have a significant impact on the body over time and have long-term health consequences.
Self-assessment of stress
Stress isn't always easy to spot, but there are several clear symptoms that indicate you're under too much strain. Stress can originate from a variety of places, but even minor daily worries from job, school, family, and friends can have an impact on the mind and body.
• Psychological signs such as difficulty concentrating, worrying, anxiety, and trouble remembering.
• Emotional signs such as being angry, irritated, moody, or frustrated.
• Physical signs such as high blood pressure, changes in weight, frequent colds or infections, and changes in the menstrual cycle and libido.
• Behavioral signs such as poor self-care, not having time for the things you enjoy, or relying on drugs and alcohol to cope.
Causes of stress
The fight-or-flight response, which is triggered by stress, is the body's response to a perceived threat or danger. Adrenaline and cortisol are among the hormones generated during this reaction. This increases heart rate, slows digestion, shunts blood flow to key muscle groups, and alters several other autonomic nerve activities, providing a burst of energy and strength to the body.
When the perceived threat has passed, the relaxation response is activated, allowing the system to return to normal operation. However, in cases of chronic stress, the relaxation response is not activated frequently enough, and being in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight can harm the body.
Impact of stress on self
Musculoskeletal system: Muscles stiffen up when the body is stressed. Muscle tension is the body's technique of protecting itself from injury and discomfort in response to stress.
With sudden onset stress, the muscles tense up all at once, and then release their tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders.
Respiratory system: As the passageway between the nose and the lungs constricts, stress and intense emotions can cause respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath and fast breathing. People with pre-existing respiratory disorders like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may find that psychological stressors increase their breathing problems. Some studies show that an acute stress can actually trigger asthma attacks. In addition, the rapid breathing—or hyperventilation—caused by stress can bring on a panic attack in someone prone to panic attacks.
Cardiovascular system: Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
Stomach discomfort: Stress may make pain, bloating, nausea, and other stomach discomfort felt more easily. Vomiting may occur if the stress is severe enough. Furthermore, stress may cause an unnecessary increase or decrease in appetite. Unhealthy diets may in turn deteriorate one’s mood.
Sexual desire: Chronic stress, ongoing stress over an extended period of time, can affect testosterone production resulting in a decline in sex drive or libido, and can even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.
Menstruation: Stress may affect menstruation among adolescent girls and women in several ways. For example, high levels of stress may be associated with absent or irregular menstrual cycles, more painful periods, and changes in the length of cycles.
Effective stress management helps you break the hold stress has on your life, so you can be happier, healthier, and more productive. The ultimate goal is a balanced life, with time for work, relationships, relaxation, and fun—and the resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head on. But stress management is not one-size-fits-all. That’s why it’s important to experiment and find out what works best for you. The following stress management tips can help you do that.
Guided imagery: Guided imagery is like taking a short vacation in your mind. It can involve imagining yourself being in your "happy place"—maybe picturing yourself sitting on a beach, listening to the waves, smelling the ocean, and feeling the warm sand underneath you.
Guided imagery can be done with a recording where you listen to someone walk you through a peaceful scene. Or, once you know how to do it yourself, you can practice guided imagery on your own.
Simply close your eyes for a minute and walk yourself through a peaceful scene. Think about all the sensory experiences you'd engage in and allow yourself to feel as though you're really there. After a few minutes, open your eyes and return to the present moment.
Meditate: Meditation brings short-term stress relief as well as lasting stress management benefits. There are many different forms of meditation to try–each one is unique and brings its own appeal.
You might develop a mantra that you repeat in your mind as you take slow deep breaths. Or, you might take a few minutes to practice mindfulness, which involves being in the moment. Simply pay attention to what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
Breathing: Just focusing on your breath or changing the way you breathe can make a big difference to your overall stress level. Breathing techniques can calm your body and your brain in just a few minutes.
The best news is, no one around you will even know you're doing them. So whether you're in a stressful meeting or you're sitting in a crowded theater, breathing exercises could be key to reducing your stress.
While there are many different breathing exercises, like karate breathing, a few simple ones include:
1. Breathe in through your nose and watch your belly fill with air. Count slowly to three as you inhale. Hold for one second and then slowly breathe out through your nose as you count to three again.
2. Breathe in through your nose and imagine that you're inhaling peaceful, calm air. Imagine that air spreading throughout your body. As you exhale, imagine that you're breathing out stress and tension.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of becoming more fully aware of the present moment—non-judgmentally and completely—rather than dwelling in the past or projecting into the future. It generally involves a heightened awareness of sensory stimuli (noticing your breathing, feeling the sensations of your body, etc.) and being "in the now."
How to Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be achieved through meditation, but one can also practice mindfulness through daily living. Focusing on the present moment and quieting your inner dialogue can help you attain mindfulness.
Some ways that you can practice meditation in your daily life:
• Pay attention: Take the time to notice things in the world around you, including your own feelings, senses, and thoughts. Focus on slowing down and enjoying the things you are experiencing.
• Focus on the moment: Rather than thinking about the past or worrying about the future, try to just take in what is happening right in front of you. Being present in the moment can help you feel more mindful and aware.
• Try mindfulness meditation: Regular practice of mindfulness meditation has benefits for your physical as well as your mental health.