What Is Stress?
Stress is a feeling or emotional state that is all too often felt, yet rarely discussed. Most people are affected by stress to some degree on a daily basis, whether it be through school, work, relationships, bills, or something else. Stress affects each individual differently and has a number of effects on the human body ranging from a mild headache or stomachache to a stroke or heart attack. Although a majority of people know the meaning of stress and how it feels, many have a difficult time actually describing the word.
So, what is the actual definition of stress? According to the Oxford Dictionaries, stress is defined as “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances,” and/or “Something that causes mental strain.” There are numerous variations to the definition, as its causes and effects differ from one individual to the next. Most dictionaries, institutes, medical professionals, etc., tend to lean towards these general descriptions.
Not all stress is necessarily negative. An article on Healthline defines stress as “Your body’s response to certain situations.” According to that definition, stress could also be perceived as the body’s natural response to a positive situation as well.
Types of Stress
The types of stress are broken down by categories. According to the American Psychological Association, there are three main types of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic.
The most common form is acute stress, which comes from the pressure and demands of everyday life. Acute stress is short term and very manageable. While it may cause some irritability or other short term issues, acute stress alone doesn’t cause any long-term damage.
Episodic acute stress is the term used to describe cases where an individual suffers from acute stress all too often; or those who are constantly worried (sometimes referred to as “worry warts”). Individuals who suffer from episodic acute stress usually don’t see anything wrong with their lifestyle, patterns, or behavior. They may also be very opposed to change, and typically have a difficult time staying in treatment and/or staying on track towards recovery.
Chronic stress is the most severe type, wearing away at people every day for extended periods of time. This kind of stress occurs when an individual views a miserable situation as never-ending, and because the individual sees no relief for the stressful situations, they eventually give up hope of finding a solution. Chronic stress is long term and can have numerous adverse effects on the body, sometimes even resulting in changes in personality.
Acute Stress Disorder
Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is a common occurrence after being exposed to a traumatic event. ASD is described as an instance in which a person develops severe anxiety, dissociation, and/or other symptoms within one month after experiencing the traumatic event. As a result, the individual may develop a number of symptoms such as trouble concentrating, feeling unable to enjoy things that were once enjoyable, and/or frequent feelings of guilt. There are also specific responses while remembering the event, as well as a specific period of time in which the instance must occur in order to be categorized as Acute Stress Disorder. Finally, the symptoms must cause significant damage or difficulty in the individual’s social or occupational life, or impair their ability to complete a necessary task.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a stress disorder categorized on its own. Often referred to as PTSD, it is a severe and possibly debilitating condition that can occur in individuals whom have experienced or witnessed an extremely traumatic event (natural disaster, serious accident, war). While people may recover from the traumatic event, sufferers of PTSD live with depression, anxiety, and many other symptoms for months, or even years after the event. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is commonly ignored or overlooked, therefore individuals suffering often don’t get the help they need. Also, because they may have difficulties maintaining relationships or may even push friends and family away, they are even more likely to suffer in silence.
Workplace stress can be described as an individual’s response to the pressures or demands placed upon them by their job. Generally speaking, people tend to experience workplace stress when they’re expected to complete tasks that are out of their realm of abilities or comfort. This type of stress is typically made worse when the person feels little or no support from co-workers and/or supervisors. Workplace stress can lead to numerous adverse effects on an individual both physically and mentally, as well as a decrease in job performance.
Student stress is a common occurrence among those attending any type of school. Initial stress factors may include being away from home for the first time (college), making new friends, etc. However, typically students feel the most stress during presentations (speeches) or exams. And while a small amount of stress can be positive — it pushes the individual to do their best — too much stress can have severe negative effects. This type of stress occurs when the student begins to display the normal symptoms of stress (anxiety, irritability, lack of sleep, etc.) in response to pressures regarding school. The pressure may come from parents, teachers, coaches, etc., and can even cause a decrease in school performance due to nervousness or the fear of failure.
While school is the number one stress factor for them, teenagers also feel stress in other aspects of life as well. The pressure to be popular, to look or dress a certain way, pressure to experiment with drugs, problems at home, and countless other things contribute to teenage stress. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association (APA), teens experience both physical and emotional symptoms of stress. Some of the most common symptoms among teens experiencing stress include feeling nervous or anxious, changes in sleeping and/or eating habits, procrastination, feeling overwhelmed, and several others. The APA advises teens who feel stressed to stay active, get enough sleep, maintain a healthy balance of work and fun, and/or talk to someone about their stress.
Emotional stress is the instance in which an individual experiences stress that affects their emotions. Typically these instances are referred to as general stress. Although it’s called emotional stress, the effects can also include mental, behavioral, and physical symptoms, as well. However, an ordinary (“normal”) level of stress is not considered a psychological disorder. Although everyone copes with stress differently, common symptoms may include changes in the thought process, changes in sleeping or eating habits, feeling sad or angry, headaches, neck pain, and many others. A small amount of stress can sometimes be positive, but becomes an issue when it begins to affect everyday functions.
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety almost always accompany one another. However, the difference between the two is that stress is a response to demands or pressures, and anxiety is a reaction to the stress. Together they can lead to a number of mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral issues. Some of the initial symptoms of stress and anxiety may include increased heart rate, rapid breathing, headaches, changes in eating and sleeping habits, difficulty concentrating, irrational anger, and countless others. In addition, those who suffer from stress and anxiety over a long period of time are more likely to have health issues because of it. They are more likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and possibly even depression and panic disorder.
Causes of Stress
Due to the fact that stress itself is such a subjective term, it’s impossible to pinpoint specific factors that could be considered a stressor for everyone. However, several studies have been conducted to determine what the most common stress factors include. According to Healthline, there are 10 main categories of stress factors. The 10 generalized categories include: health, relationships, emotional problems, life changes, money, personal beliefs, occupation, discrimination, environment, and traumatic events. Of course each category includes more specific stress factors (i.e. life changes could include moving or starting a new job, etc.), but are fairly universal. Keep in mind, what stresses one individual may not necessarily cause stress for another.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress (and Chronic Stress)
In small amounts, stress can sometimes be positive; however, when a person feels too much stress it can begin to have adverse effects on their health. Stress can affect an individual’s mental, emotional, physical, and behavioral health. Signs and symptoms of acute (short-term) stress may include increased heart rate, shortness of breath, headaches, stomachaches, dry mouth, sore muscles, and changes in eating and sleeping habits. While these symptoms are short lived, for those who suffer from chronic (long-term) stress, signs and symptoms become more severe. Some common signs and symptoms of chronic stress may include increased nervous behavior (nail biting, teeth grinding, etc.), restlessness and fatigue, feeling angry or irritable, neglecting responsibilities, developing irrational fears, and many others.
Prevent and/or Manage Stress
Though a majority of people wish they could, it’s impossible to eliminate stress completely. However, there are ways to effectively manage stressful factors. According to Healthline, there are steps that can be taken in order to help prevent controllable stress. These steps include first identifying the stress factors (figuring out what exactly causes stress), and avoiding those factors as much as possible. To avoid getting overwhelmed, setting limits on activities and setting aside time to relax is essential. Communicating with others about stress factors can help ease the burden of dealing with it alone, and regular exercise helps lessen the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Finally, being positive can help relieve the symptoms, as well. When worries or nervousness begin to take over, thinking positive things, listening to music, or having a laugh with a friend can turn the mood around. Actively managing stress levels can stop short-term stress from becoming chronic stress.
Handling/Coping with Stress
Coping with certain stress factors may be easier for some individuals than it is for others. However, whether it may be individually or with the help of a professional, there are methods and techniques designed to help those suffering from stress to better cope with their stress factors. Individual coping skills include identifying and avoiding (when possible) the stressful situations, taking a break from the stress (even if it’s just during a short walk — exercise helps too!), seeking support from friends or family, and relaxation methods (such as meditation or yoga). If the stress can’t be handled alone, an individual may need to seek the help of a health care professional. Doctors may suggest things such as their own relaxation methods, talk therapy, role-playing to resolve issues, hypnosis, or a number of other techniques.
How to Relieve Stress/Stress Relievers
As previously mentioned, stress can’t be completely eliminated. However, there are effective stress relievers that individuals can test to see which ones work best for them. Though there is likely an endless number of things that may reduce stress for each individual, there are basic stress relievers that are believed to be universally effective. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common stress relievers include getting active, connecting and laughing with others, getting the right amount of sleep, trying yoga or meditation, keeping a journal, and listening to music and getting creative. Some individuals obtain stress relief color books or stress balls (balls filled with sand or a similar substance that helps relieve stress when squeezed), while others find that sports or music help reduce their stress levels. Finally, if the stress feels like it’s too much to handle alone, seeking professional help is the first step to effectively relieving stress.
Stress tests – also sometimes referred to as an exercise stress test – are a way of monitoring and gathering information about how a person’s heart functions during physical activity. During the test, electrodes are placed on the arms, legs, and chest to record the heart’s electrical signals. A blood pressure cuff is also placed on one arm to continuously monitor blood pressure throughout the test. The individual then begins to walk on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bike. As the test progresses, the speed and incline of the treadmill are increased, or the resistance on the bike (making it harder to pedal). The individual continues the exercise until a target heart rate is reached, or until symptoms occur that prevent the test from continuing (such as chest pain or dizziness). Once the test is over, the doctor collects and reviews the information in order to determine the best plan of action for the patient.
Improving Your Quality of Life
Countless people experience stress every single day, but the good news is there are methods to help prevent, manage, cope with, and relieve the symptoms of stress as well as techniques to encourage relaxation. Having a good support system, such as friends and family, is extremely helpful for those looking to overcome the effects of their stress. And though many people are afraid to ask for help, there is absolutely no shame in reaching out for help when it is needed. Recognizing the issue is the first step towards a less stressful life. It’s never too late to make life more enjoyable.