Stress: What It Means And How To Manage
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference" ~Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian [1892-1971].
WHAT IS STRESS?
Let us first understand that Stress is a state of the mind. Dr. Hans Selye first introduced the concept of stress in to the life science in 1936. He defined stress as "The force, pressure, or strain exerted upon a material object or person which resist these forces and attempts to maintain its original state. Who was Dr. Hans Selye? Dr. Stress as he was also known, was born in Vienna in 1907; he studied in Prague, Paris, and Rome. He received his medical degree and his Ph.D. (chemistry) from the German Charles- Ferdinand University in Prague (now known as the Charles University in Prague), and his D.Sc. at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Hans Selye is without question one of the great pioneers of medicine. His famous and revolutionary concept of stress opened countless avenues of treatment through the discovery that hormones participate in the development of many degenerative diseases, including coronary thrombosis, brain hemorrhage, hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and kidney failure, arthritis, peptic ulcers and even cancer. He was responsible for giving the subject of Stress the importance it deserved.
Though stress seems to have a negative connotation in our minds, let us not think of Stress necessarily as something bad. Stress is actually part of our response to any challenge or stimulus; a positive force aiding our continued survival. Stress provides a dynamic force that distinguishes between active business of living or mere passive existence. The state of alertness needed when we have to negotiate a busy street crossing or the tension we feel when we are getting ready to catch a flight is stress. As responsible adults we feel stressed in such situations whereas a child who is passive and therefore does not. The butterflies one feels in the stomach when one goes out to bat in an important cricket match is healthy because that stress makes you alert and helps in being better prepared. This is beneficial stress or "Eustress". It is actually a normal part of life and can serve a useful purpose. Inimical stress or Distress on the other hand occurs when there is a negative and frightful response from the body mind complex to any demand it fears to face. It may be said that if you fail to get a handle on your stress and you allow it to become long term it can seriously interfere with your health, work and family life as it so often does today. This is when stress becomes a cause for concern. WHO classifies it as the health epidemic of the 21st century. Stress is a physical, chemical, or emotional factor causing mental tension that can worsen or increase the risk of conditions of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, gastro intestinal disorders among others.
This aspect of Stress is what we shall talk about hereafter.
Have you at times or often experienced one or more of the following?
- Feeling moody and frustrated.
- Feeling lonely, depressed and worthless.
- Preferring to avoid others and social gatherings.
- Rapid heartbeats and chest pain.
- Aches, pains and tense muscles.
- Upset stomach including an irritable bowel.
- Jaw clenching and teeth grinding.
- Loss of sexual desire and ability.
- Racing thoughts and inability to concentrate.
- Nervousness and shaking including ringing in the ears.
- Being pessimistic and seeing only the negative side.
- Changes in eating habits: eating too much or too little.
- Avoiding responsibilities and procrastinating.
- Increase in nervous behaviours like nail biting and fidgeting.
- Increase in use of cusswords and profanity especially at home. Even arguing with inanimate objects.
- Increase in use of alcohol and tobacco etc.
In case you have, or a loved one has pointed out the same to you, it is time for you to give it a serious thought; you might be feeling the effects of stress. Stress arises when one finds that one is UNABLE to live up to or is overwhelmed by the external demands and expectations. It could also be the inability to achieve our own internal needs and aspirations. Interestingly, stress as our pre historic ancestors knew of was vastly different from what we face today though our body/mind complex still reacts the same way. Those days the fight and flight syndrome applied literally. When he was confronted with a wild beast there were only two options open to our man: Fight or Flight. Fight and overcome or run for your life; there was no time to analyse the situation. In either case the body mind complex reacted in only one way.
In this state our system experiences an over acting of the sympathetic nervous system wherein adrenaline and cortisol secretions increase and blood flows away from the brain to the muscles, especially the larger ones for strength. As a result, dendrites shrink back in the brain to moderate the flow of information, slowing or closing down the nonessential body functions. The whole body starts preparing itself to fight against the reason of stress. Strength, speed and alertness are all that is needed at that time. Blood sugar level is ramped up for extra energy. The vision becomes more acute, other senses are heightened; it could be a matter of life and death. One who has been chased by an angry dog has experienced what his prehistoric ancestors had hundreds of thousands of years ago. However, stress today comes more from mental and emotional causes often precipitated by financial problems, work and family related issues, poor health etc. though physical factors like finding that the liftis out of order when you return from work also contribute. What needs to be appreciated is that the body mind complex continue to react to all the stressors the same way. In case of physical factors once the pressure is relaxed, the vital parameters like heartbeat, blood pressure etc return to their normal levels of equilibrium like the uncoiled spring so to say; once you find a safe place the threat from the dog is gone and the body and mind relax. However, emotional or mental stressors are another matter altogether because the body/mind does not require physical strength and speed to combat such threats. It calls for a different mindset. The danger is when such attacks occur at regular intervals as it often does, the vital parameters do not get the time to get back to their levels of equilibrium and remain elevated. This could be a recipe for disaster. In due course we start feeling unwell more often and start displaying certain telltale signs like headaches, irritability, poor sleep quality etc.
The causes of stress are highly individual. What you consider stressful depends on many factors, including your personality, general outlook on life, problem-solving abilities, and social support system. Something that is stressful to you may be neutral or even enjoyable to someone else. Stress can also be linked to outside factors such as the state of the world, the environment in which you live or work, or your family. Your stress can also come from your own irresponsible behaviour, negative attitudes and feelings, or unrealistic expectations. We often create our own stress. The stress response narrows our ability to think clearly and function effectively. It can disable us physically and emotionally.
Listed below are some of the top stressors:
- Death of a loved one.
- Divorce or separation.
- Loss of a job.
- Financial worries.
- Chronic illness or injury to self or to a loved one.
- Getting married.
- Moving to a new home.
Work stress for those who have to go to work is not to be underestimated. We spend 8 to 10 hours a day at work and the workplace does not always provide a very congenial environment. Bad boss, unreasonable working hours, unhygienic washrooms, sexual harassment, skill set not adequate to meet the job requirements, need to speak in front of colleagues and seniors etc can be quite debilitating. Let us see the various stages of stressful events which we experience. There are three stages a person goes through while suffering from stress.
- Alarm Stage: Look at a student's face just before he is going to give an exam. Is not the fear and tension clearly evident? When something has just started stressing you and you feel a fight or flight kind of attitude, then you are in the alarm stage. It is the start up stage which defines the first reaction to the stressor. The whole body starts preparing itself to fight against the cause of stress. The fear, excitement or pressure is evident on the sufferer's face.
- Resistance Stage: When a student is sitting in the examination hall and writing his exam, he is bothered about completing it in time. He is making full efforts to cope with the situation and his whole body is engaged in fighting against the condition. This is the resistance stage. In this stage, the body keeps making continuous efforts to cope with stress and therefore feels run down and exhausted. The person starts feeling irritated, over reacts to minor situations and gets mentally and physically weak. Psychological, physical and behavioral changes are also clearly visible.
- Exhaustion Stage: If a student is preparing for his exam and despite of every possible effort, he is not able to relate to his studies, he is bound to get stressed. The stress could reach a point where he/she may feel completely exhausted and helpless to the extent of thinking of ending his life. This is the exhaustion stage. This stage is further divided into two phases:
The initial phase is when the stress persists and due to lack of appropriate measures-preparation the person is not able to concentrate and work efficiently.
- Burnout stage can come next when the person is completely exhausted and drained of all energy reserves. There is a complete physical, psychological and emotional breakdown. This requires immediate attention. We hear this of young sportspersons especially teenaged tennis players, who have suffered from this and many have not been able to recover their earlier form at all. Recourse to drugs becomes and escape route for many.
We have briefly mentioned about the causes of stress earlier. However, let us find out what can lead to these causes.
- Frustrations: frustrations are obstacles that prevent you from meeting your needs or achieving personal goals. For example, being unable to make on line payments in these COVID times because I lack the technical expertise and must depend on others [compromising security aspects] can be very frustrating.
- Conflicts stressors involving two or more incompatible needs or goals are known as conflicts. For example a wife torn between her duty towards an ailing mother in law in the city and taking up the promotion that involves a transfer to another place.
- Pressure: stress can stem from the expectations of others or the demands you place on yourself. For example, a sales executive trying to meet unrealistic sales targets in the current scenario or, a student desperately trying to get the grades which can get her into a college of her choice.
There is a fine line between feeling stressed out while still being able to function effectively and the debilitating, even paralysing phenomenon we feel as burnout or breakdown. The issue is between handling your stress on your own and being unable to figure out what to do next. Sometimes the pressures of life become so overwhelming as is the case with many of us in these COVID times that professional advice needs to be sought.
There are certain medications that can help you crawl out of the situation but, you need to have some idea of your stressor(s) first. You can also practice some self help tips [detailed below] if you so wish. It shall, however, depend on the type and degree of stress you are suffering from before seeking professional help but there should be no mental blocks about going to a professional to get matters sorted out before it can cause damage.
It is time to seek professional help if you:
- Feel that stress is affecting your health.
- Feel that it will never end.
- Feel so desperate that you think about quitting your job, running away, taking a drug overdose, or injuring yourself or others.
- Feel depressed, sad, tearful, or that life is not worth living anymore.
When the threat from a situation turns grave the reaction to such stress becomes anxiety. The anxiety/panic epidemic today is one of global proportion. The large majority of those suffering with these disorders are holding full-time jobs, many at Executive and managerial levels or having major responsibilities at home. The threat is not only at the work front, the family unit today is also facing severe stress particularly for those in charge. Adolescent children are unable to understand how to cope and are becoming increasingly vulnerable to COVID related trauma.
Many adults are taking self prescribed medications of some sort, from tranquillizers to anti-depressants and sleeping pills. Others are increasingly getting dependent on to other substances including alcohol, tobacco, both smoking and smokeless variety, high sugar laced snacks, and drugs, both legal and illegal. Most people with anxiety/panic disorder have very similar complaints from free floating anxiety to full-blown anxiety attacks, making them prisoners of their own lives. Many complain of poor concentration and memory recall often leading to a tendency to avoid responsibilities. Many cannot remember when they last felt well, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Domestic violence has reared its ugly head as never before setting alarm bells ringing. The long term damage arising from such domestic disharmony is the child getting emotionally scarred maybe for life.
Managing anxiety and panic under the circumstances call for professional help. Mental health must take precedence. There are many facets to be considered and once these are defined, a workable program has to be put in place. Then it needs to be worked on with persistence preferably with regular supervision by trained people.
For most, perhaps it is still not so bad and self management should take care of the situation. Listed below are some self help tips to keep your body and mind prepared to withstand stress. The goal of stress management is to bring your nervous system back into balance, giving you a sense of calmness and control in your life. You know that stress is terrible for your health. But what you may not know is that stress is also really, really terrible for your metabolism. In a four-year study the findings of which were published recently in the journal Obesity, researchers measured the cortisol levels ( cortisol is the "stress hormone") contained in the locks of hair they had plucked from 2,527 men and women. They also tracked the subjects' "weight, body mass index, and waist circumference." Ultimately, they discovered a direct correlation between chronic stress and all three of those obesity-related factors. Another study published in 2016 in the journal Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences made an equally stunning case for a straight-line connection between metabolism and body's stress response. "Chronic stress can lead to dietary over-consumption, increased visceral adiposity, and weight gain", found the researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.
Doctors all over the world tend to agree that exercise is one of the best forms of medicine out there; a boost of endorphins leaves us a calm kind of what is known as a energized, "runner's high". It boosts our moods and a habit of movement can keep debilitating diseases like depression and anxiety at bay. However, sometimes, we simply do not have time to sweat. Fortunately, there are other great stress-busters for fighting everyday stressors that can also help us stay even-keeled no matter what life throws at us . Of course, you may still miss a beat or two when someone suddenly springs at you out of nowhere or when you hear the shattering of a glass bowl in the kitchen when the maid is doing the dishes but you recover fast .
Since stress is here to stay, the following are some well researched tips you can practice to keep yourself fighting fit.
- Breathe: Take a deep breath and count to 10. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply. Deep breathing can help oxygenate your blood. Breathe the Right Way. There's a reason doctors sometimes prescribe breathing exercises to people struggling with truly stressful times. Deep breathing—which encourages the full exchange of oxygen in the body—activates your body's calming parasympathetic response, lowering levels of inflammatory compounds linked to stress. Most of us breathe all wrong. Take a deep breath. If your shoulders rise on your inhale, it's time to reassess. Try again. This time, on the inhale, push your belly out. When you exhale, contract in. Your belly should rise when you breathe in and shrink when you breathe out like that of a baby. Take a few deep breaths with a palm over your navel to make sure you are doing it right
- Meditate: Chilling out has a direct impact on stress. Research out of Georgetown University Medical Center finds that after an eight-week course in mindful meditation, people with anxiety disorders lowered inflammatory markers and stress hormones in their blood by 15 percent. Spend at least 15 minutes a day meditating in a quiet place with your backbone straight preferably sitting cross legged. Meditation is in our genes and therefore we just need to restart the habit.
- Seek out Nature (and Sunshine): Take a walk. A brisk walk can knock out stress and improve your mood instantaneously. Ideally a 90-minute walk in the park is best if you can manage. It can calm the mind, lowering activity in a brain region linked to depression, finds Stanford University research. It's not just the walking, however. It has to be in spaces with a lot of greenery and away from the concrete and traffic. If you are at work even a short walk around the office a few times during the day, taking the stairs or standing up to stretch can help relieve stress and is highly recommended for those of us who spend most of our waking hours in the office and today at home.
- Sitting up Straight: Research published in the journal Health Psychology finds that—compared to a hunched over position (laptop users please note!)—sitting upright in the face of stress can boost self-esteem, fending off further angst. The idea boils down to something called embodied cognition, an idea that our bodies impact our emotions (and vice versa). And it could be that simply feeling taller boosts confidence, shooing stress away so to say. How to Do It Right: Plant both feet on the ground, look straight ahead, straighten your back while sitting tall, and feel your shoulder blades pull back and down.
- Laugh out loud: Watch a funny video or find other ways to laugh. A good laugh can help decrease levels of stress-causing hormones. Also, when we laugh, we tend to stay in the moment, which is a stress reliever in itself. Laughter is one of the best medicines.
- Call a friend: Stress management is one of the great gifts of friendship. When you're under a lot of stress, pick up the phone and talk it out with a trusted friend. You will likely feel way better by the time you hang up. Focus on quality rather than quantity. One study in the journal Developmental Psychology found that simply being around one close friend can decrease cortisol levels, making it one of the more effective stress busters. Reconnect with your childhood/school friends. Friends and family can help us talk through and manage life's stressors; a strong support system is often linked with being more resilient in the face of stress itself.
- Turn on music: Music can do wonders to relieve stress. Your favorite music can help you feel good and de-stress. YouTube and music apps like Spotify and Ganna.com have music to suit your mood anytime of the day and night. Get hold of a good pair of blue tooth earphones and/ portable speakers and unwind.
- Eat your Greens: Comfort foods are not so comforting. It's the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in healthy foods that lower your stress levels. Take a study from the University of Otago, NZ, it found that students who ate more fruits and vegetables also tended to feel calmer and happier. Aim for a variety of different colored products—so that you're getting a mixture of different nutrients. Think of a combination of seasonal fruits and vegetables in your daily diet. Spinach, blueberries, pomegranates and bananas are useful items to have around. Green leafy vegetables are a must. Cut down on the oil and fried stuff.
- Warm baths are a great way to unwind and relax. take a warm shower after a day"s work. If you happen to have a bath tub there is nothing like soaking the body in the warm water. Add a little eucalyptus or lavender oil for added effect. A good bath is always refreshing and the time you spend under the shower is also quality time when you are alone with your thoughts.
- Get in the garden: There is something about being in the fresh air gardening — the sensory experience of putting your hands in the earth that can combat stress and there is some research to back it up. Even having your plants in your balcony or terrace can help.
- Get a massage or facial: Massage can help relax tight muscles, enhance circulation and lower stress levels. Make sure you get it done by a well trained person.
- Physical Intimacy: Studies have shown physical intimacy with the spouse can actually decrease the physical symptoms of stress. Such acts often come with a chemical cocktail of hormones like 'feel good' oxytoxin as well as a release of endorphins. When running through the bloodstream these molecules can help us chill out. Even hugging between loved ones in the family can help lower stress levels by creating a positive environment.
- Take a nap: Stress and sleep issues go hand and hand. Sleep It Off as they say. While you snooze, your brain processes all of the emotions and happenings from the day—helping your mind remain even-keeled and keeping stress levels from boiling up. That's why a lack of shuteye can impair your ability to control your emotions, including anxiety and stress. Even if you cannot log your eight to nine hours in the night, a nap can help. Research finds that just 30-minutes of shuteye can be one of the best stress busters for reversing the damage of a bad night's rest. Cortisol levels get reduced; Power nap is not just a fashion statement.
- Say Thank You: Scientists are no strangers to the powers of gratitude. In fact, gratitude is linked to 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A study out of the University of California San Diego's School of Medicine found that grateful people were happier, slept better, had more energy, and had lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers—some of which correlated with heart health. Keep a gratitude diary. At the end of every day, write down three things you're thankful for. Some research finds that reflecting on the good at day's end can work to improve health (and sink stress).
- Cuddle up with a pet: A pet's soothing presence is a great stress reliever. Studies suggest dog owners are happier overall. If you take your dog for a walk, you can get the stress-relieving benefits of exercise too.
- Seek a comfort zone: Some people also find it therapeutic to be in the kitchen by cooking up a dish. Even if you aren't a top chef, cooking can be a great mood booster. Creative arts is another good stress buster. For example, painting, sketching [even doodling] and photography can take your mind off your anxiety.
- Snowballing tendencies can be quite deleterious: Dwelling, or ruminating over things that have happened or things that may happen, is dangerous. Published research finds that brooding over negative events is the No. 1 biggest predictor of issues like depression and anxiety and plays a huge role in how much stress you experience. What to Do? Instead of stewing over all of the ways life could go wrong, ask yourself: Is there anything in my control that I can change about this situation? If there are things you can change, change them; otherwise try to accept the present scenario without projecting into the future a habit that can further a spiral of negativity. This is particularly relevant in the kind of situation we are in today.
- Join a club: Whether it be dancing, swimming, aerobics, or yoga. Participating in an activity you enjoy maybe with a few others can help relieve tension. Gyms have proliferated and also have professional trainers to guide you.
- It is best to stop watching the TV at least half an hour before going to bed. TV programmes, even the news and related graphics can tend to be stressful in its contents. It is much better to listen to good music or read a book instead. A short story of your choice can be very calming. YouTube gives you a wide choice of audio files of excellent short stories some of which are of 10 to 15 minutes duration. You fall asleep with positive inputs and you sleep better for it.
Finally, count your blessings, do not compare yourself with others, try to forgive people and pray. Prayers are an exercise for the soul. We have to accept that stress is an inevitable part of our lives today. However, stress does not affect everyone the same way and therefore it needs to be remembered that there are no "one size fits all" solutions to managing stress.
Controlling your life generally would mean balancing various aspects of it like work, relationships and leisure as well as the physical, intellectual and emotional parts preferably without seeking professional help. People who effectively manage stress consider life a challenge rather than a series of irritations, and they feel they have control over their lives, even in the face of setbacks. It is mostly in the mind. Happiness is a journey and not a destination.
Whatever be the measures you adopt, do keep in mind to strictly adhere to COVID protocols. Please wear masks, invariably practice social distancing norms and avoid gatherings.
Author: BIKASH KUMAR DAS
Designation: Former AGM and Faculty at State Bank of India
Also Read: Understanding the Dunning-Kruger effect