Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Effects
Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many people, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price.
If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
What is stress?
Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life – giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
The stress response also helps you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV.
But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.
Effects of chronic stress
The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation. If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency stress response may be “on” most of the time. The more your body’s stress system is activated, the easier it is to trip and the harder it is to shut off.
Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
The Body’s Stress Response
When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action.
Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus – preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.
Many health problems are caused or exacerbated by stress, including:
How much stress is too much?
Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people roll with the punches, while others crumble at the slightest obstacle or frustration. Some people even seem to thrive on the excitement and challenge of a high-stress lifestyle.
Your ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including the quality of your relationships, your general outlook on life, your emotional intelligence, and genetics.
Things that influence your stress tolerance level
- Your support network – A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
- Your sense of control – If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. People who are vulnerable to stress tend to feel like things are out of their control.
- Your attitude and outlook – Stress-hardy people have an optimistic attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, accept that change is a part of life, and believe in a higher power or purpose.
- Your ability to deal with your emotions. You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or afraid. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity.
- Your knowledge and preparation – The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.
Am I in control of stress or is stress controlling me?
- When I feel agitated, do I know how to quickly calm and soothe myself?
- Can I easily let go of my anger?
- Can I turn to others at work to help me calm down and feel better?
- When I come home at night, do I walk in the door feeling alert and relaxed?
- Am I seldom distracted or moody?
- Am I able to recognize upsets that others seem to be experiencing?
- Do I easily turn to friends or family members for a calming influence?
- When my energy is low, do I know how to boost it?
If you can answer yes to most of these questions, you’re probably in control of stress.
Causes of stress
The potential causes of stress are numerous and highly individual. What causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that’s stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it.
For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship.
However, anything that puts high demands on you or forces you to adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
Common external causes of stress
Not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be self-generated:
Common internal causes of stress
Not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be self-generated:
Signs and symptoms of stress overload
It’s important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feels familiar – even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll.
The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behaviour in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently.
The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms
Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms of stress can also be caused by other psychological and medical problems. If you’re experiencing any of the warning signs of stress, it’s important to see a doctor for a full evaluation. Your doctor can help you determine whether or not your symptoms are stress-related.
No one can escape stress; it enters our lives daily. At times we experience it in mild and brief forms – we miss a bus, have to address an audience, or have to wait on a gas line. Sometimes it is felt only to a moderate degree and can last for hours or days, as when we find ourselves overworked, playing host to a flu virus, or upset over a heated argument. In its severe form stress can plague us for weeks, months, or even years. Examples of high stress situations include a financial catastrophe, the death of someone dear, or a disease we suffer chronically.
STRESSOR, STRESS REACTION, STRESS
Dr. Richard Lazarus is another major contributor to the field of research into stress and ways of coping with it. He, too, locates stress inside the person rather than in the environment. However, he emphasizes the important role played by cognition (i.e., thought, or perception) in the individual’s stress response. Lazarus regards situations or events themselves as being neutral; they only become stressful when perceived or appraised negatively. Thus, for a stress response to occur, a person must become aware of an exterior or interior situation or demand that calls into question his ability to cope with it successfully and painlessly.
In light of the formulations proposed by the behavioural scientists we have already considered, and for the sake of clarity and simplicity in our present discussion of stress, it would seem advisable to adopt the following three definitions: (1) The stressor is an event, situation, or condition that, perceived cognitively, produces a psychological and biologic (or psychobiologic) reaction in the individual that is usually, but not necessarily, unpleasant and sometimes produces symptoms of physical or emotional illness. (2) The stress reaction is the response produced by the perceived stressor. It is often unhealthy (i.e., threatening to the person’s total well-being), and includes affective (feeling, emotion, mood) as well as physiologic (especially hormonal) components. (3) Stress is simply the interior process that includes the stressor (event) as perceived, the stress reaction (response to the event), and whatever steps intervene between them.
COPING WITH STRESS
Some authors in the fields of psychology and psychiatry divide stress responses into two types. In Dr. Kenneth Pelletier’s new book Holistic Medicine: From Stress to Optimal Health, he describes a Type I stress response as one that is perfectly normal, of brief duration, and usually occurring when the source of stress is immediate, identifiable, and resolvable. When such an event takes place a number of transient physiologic changes occur concomitantly. Blood pressure becomes elevated, and fatty acids, glucose, and the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine increase in the blood. The heart works harder to pump more blood per minute, and the sympathetic branch of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system is called into action.
As soon as a Type I stress situation is resolved, the body eases into a period of compensatory relaxation, and the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system takes over. (Its healing effect is called technically a parasympathetic rebound.) Dr. Herbert Benson has designated this mechanism the relaxation response. His bestselling book (with the same name) has helped millions to reduce the level of stress in their lives in a virtually effortless way. Ordinary physical exercise also elicits a Type I response, and each time it is terminated it results in the relaxation response that Benson, Pelletier, and others recommend so strongly for the maintenance of optimum health.
In the Type II stress response, all of the bodily changes mentioned above remain abnormally elevated for a prolonged period of time. This happens whenever stressors are not experienced as immediate, identifiable, and resolvable. Perhaps the majority of the significant stressors in our lives are of this type: vague and continuing unresolved for weeks or longer. The body remains in a geared-up state, prepared for fighting or fleeing—as if life itself were being threatened—even when the actual threat to the person’s well-being is relatively minor. Since the physiologic effects are prolonged, transient blood pressure elevation can become hypertension (the forerunner of strokes), and increased heart rates can result in tachycardia (an early sign of cardiac disease). No adequate period of parasympathetic rebound is experienced to allow the vital functions to return to rest at or below their normal baseline. The longer a Type II stress response continues, the greater the likelihood that a stress-related illness will develop. Migraine headaches, heart attacks, peptic ulcers, arthritis, and strokes are all too often the outcome.
SIGNS OF STRESS IN OURSELVES
People are beginning to understand that such afflictions as peptic ulcers, ulcerative colitis, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, strokes, arthritis, hyperthyroidism, sexual impotence, bronchial asthma, as well as a broad range of psychiatric disorders, can be considered “preventable,” because they are associated with stress that could be avoided or at least diminished.
Some of the danger signs that different individuals may detect in themselves as evidence of their being under stress have been pinpointed by Selye. It is important to remember that those signs and symptoms are highly personalized; that is, caused by malfunctioning of whatever organ or system of the body is—in a particular individual—most vulnerable. In other words, because of a hereditary or a life-generated predisposition, under comparable stressful circumstances one person will develop a headache, another a backache; a third will feel dizzy.
Selye includes: (1) general irritability, hyper excitation or depression; (2) pounding of the heart (an indication of high blood pressure); (3) dryness of the throat and mouth; (4) impulsive behaviour, emotional instability; (5) the overpowering urge to cry or to run and hide; (6) inability to concentrate, flight of thoughts, and general disorientation; (7) predilection to become fatigued, and the loss of joie de vivre; (8) ‘free-floating anxiety” (i.e., we are afraid, although we do not know precisely what it is we are fearing); (9) emotional tension and alertness, feeling of being “keyed up”; (10) trembling, nervous tic (i.e., brief recurrent, irresistible movement of a small segment of the body); (11) tendency to be easily startled by sounds that are not loud; (12) high pitched, nervous laughter; (13) stuttering and other speech difficulties; (14) gnashing or grinding of the teeth; (15) insomnia; (16) hyperirritability; (17) sweating; (18) the frequent need to urinate; (19) diarrhoea, indigestion, queasiness in the stomach, and sometimes even vomiting; (20) migraine headaches; (21) premenstrual tension or missed menstrual cycles; (22) pain in the neck or lower back; (23) loss of appetite or compulsive eating; (24) increased smoking; (25) increased use of legally prescribed drugs, such as tranquilizers or amphetamines; (26) alcohol and drug addiction; (27) nightmares; (28) neurotic behaviour, (29) psychoses; and (30) a marked proneness to accidents.
RELAXATION IS THE KEY
The effect of the approaches that are used as alternatives to tranquilizers in heading off emotional distress (or decreasing it if it is too late for prevention) is simply to provide a sustained period of diminished sympathetic (nervous) activity with an accompanying increase in parasympathetic functioning. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system is characteristic of the fight or flight response (made famous by physiologist Walter Cannon), and results in dilated pupils, elevated blood pressure accelerated heart rate, faster and deeper breathing, and many other physical changes. Stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, promotes relaxation of the skeletal muscles, decreased blood pressure, slowing of the heart and breathing rate, and constriction of the pupils of the eyes. This latter process is restorative and healing for the mind and the body which, it should always be remembered, can never be simultaneously in a state of relaxation and stress. In other words, by maintaining physical relaxation we prevent our being aroused by stressful emotions, and by deliberately achieving a state of relaxation, we eliminate existing stress. The following strategies all aim at achieving the constructive emotional and physiologic conditions that are found in peaceful or tranquil relaxation.
HOW TO COPE WITH STRESS
Let’s begin to establish a more effective coping repertory by examining a series of insights outlined by Dr. Jere Yates of Pepperdine University in his recent book, Managing Stress. (His suggestions are italicized,)
1. Build and maintain an adequate sense of self-esteem. People with a decreased sense of personal worth are more likely to become anxious and hostile when they perceive they are being treated negatively in interpersonal relationships. Self-esteem develops when we feel loved and are able to show love in return, especially in devoted service to others or to a worthy cause.
2. Establish ‘stability zones” (areas of your life in which little or no change is taking place or is occurring at a relatively slower pace than in other parts of your life). This helps reduce the amount of stress you must cope with when life tends to become filled with turbulent change. Religion, close family and community ties, customs, traditions, and routines help in provide an increased sense of stability and, security.
3. Develop effectiveness and efficiency in employing your competencies. People who are uncertain of their skills and other abilities are more inclined to feel stress when they are called upon to perform. Continuing education and performance-monitoring or “supervision” (by consultants, directors, friends, etc.) can facilitate lifelong development.
4. Strengthen your professional qualifications. People only weakly qualified are more vulnerable to suffering from stress. Think of a teacher with poor credentials or degrees when the time comes for reduction of faculty size. People with strong qualifications experience less stress when crisis comes because they have more options available to them.
5. Learn cognitive strategies. Most important among factors determining your reaction in a stressor is the way you perceive or think about it. Managing your thoughts is an effective means of reducing stress. For example, think about the fact that the stress you are experiencing will not last forever. Or that what is a fact is a fact, and there’s no use arguing about it. Talk to yourself in times of stress. Decide in advance what words you are going to say to yourself in moments of pressure. (Example: When the leader starts finding fault with me, I’ll tell myself, “Don’t argue, listen to him; you might learn something useful.”) Rehearse again and again what you plan to say. Replace the “self talk” statements that don’t work for you successfully by holding down your stress.
6. Take sufficient vacations. Uninterrupted long-term encounter with stressors creates distress. Our body tissues and organs need intermittent relief from constant bombardment by stress-related hormones and other biochemicals that will otherwise eventually produce illness. A break is not long enough if one does not return to action feeling rejuvenated as well as relaxed.
7. Live lovingly. The person who is manifesting and receiving such qualities as warmth, kindness, caring, and cherishing is experiencing a healing of the wounds that distress may have caused. When Jesus prescribed that His weary disciples should “come apart and rest,” it was to be “with Me.” I am quite certain this provision was essential; they were in need of experiencing His presence as healing, stress-reducing Love.
8. Clarify your personal values and live according to them. Behaviour that is at cross-purposes with your ideals cannot help but increase your stress level. You may not be consciously aware of this impact, but given enough time, it will eventually take its toll. Books on ‘values clarification” are often helpful to a religious person sincerely desiring in eliminate personal stress arising from this source. So is the annual retreat, which affords opportunity to rearrange the activities of one’s life so that they are in harmony with one’s real values.
9. Monitor your own life’s pace. Stress comes from attempting in do too much, always striving to please others and never oneself, and from neglecting to live a balanced life. Time is needed for physical exercise and play, as well as rewarding work; for soul-satisfying prayer and other spiritual exercises; for gratifying intellectual pursuits, and for heart-expanding cultural experiences of beauty. Our need for novelty and for creative accomplishments is too easily overlooked in religious people’s busy and altruistic lives. lf we are positioned through God’s Providence to serve others by helping them learn to discover the full richness and goodness of life, surely in conscience we ought first to learn how to develop our own total humanity and love of life, with God’s help, so that belief, reliance, and learning can become possible for others when we offer ourselves as their leaders or helpers.
– Prepared by Fr. Bhyju cmf