Stress is a popular topic of conversation these days. We talk about feeling stressed out, burned out, overwhelmed or “losing it.” If you’ve caught yourself saying (or even thinking) those words lately, you’re not alone. A startling 75 to 90 percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
How stressed are you?
Do any of these symptoms seem familiar?
- You catch yourself sighing constantly (big tip-off!)
- You feel as if you’re literally being pulled in ten directions all at once
- You make uncharacteristic mistakes… you forget appointments, forget to pay a bill
- You have a hard time concentrating or making decisions
- You don’t sleep well at night, or you sleep too long
- You experience appetite changes – marked decrease or increase
- You’re prone to sudden emotional outbursts; you often feel on edge, frustrated, easily annoyed, impatient
- Your alcohol intake increases; you drink more “to relax”
- You develop nervous habits or tics
- You don’t get as much pleasure out of things you used to enjoy
If these symptoms sound familiar, yes – you’re stressed.
Stress can sneak up on you. Stressors can pop up without warning, and sometimes, unfortunately, all at once. What qualifies as a “stressor?” Anything we consider to be threatening to us in some way, either physically or emotionally. Actual stress only occurs when we have doubts about our ability to deal with that stressor. Starting a new job, for example, can be stressful because we haven’t yet convinced ourselves we can do the job.
In other words, stress becomes a problem when we have too much stress and not enough resources to cope with it. Change is the culprit behind most stress. Whether that change is the birth of a baby or being served with divorce papers, adjusting to a new situation requires a lot of energy and good coping skills.
Most stressors you bump into throughout life fall into one of six basic categories:
- Acute time-limited or brief stressors. A public speaking engagement or a job interview
- Stressful event sequences. A major disaster such as the death of a spouse or child or the U.S. terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 – events that create a series of new challenges, but will eventually end
- Chronic stressors. Pervasive, recurring demands that force you to change your role or behavior and don’t have a clear endpoint; e.g., caring for a child with a permanent disability or coping with a chronically depressed spouse
- Distant stressors. Traumatic experiences that occurred in the distant past but still have emotional and cognitive consequences for you; e.g., childhood abuse
- Background stressors. Traffic jams, a baby wailing in the background while you’re trying to conduct a phone conversation
Humans are so prone to stress that sometimes we even experience anticipatory stress – we get stressed before change even happens! When you find yourself worrying about something that hasn’t even happened yet, try channeling that energy into anticipatory coping. Review similar past experiences to remind yourself of mistakes to avoid repeating, the results you can expect, and the resources that can help you cope. Work out what you will do to cope with this stressor more effectively than you have in the past. Worrying only increases your stress, but anticipatory coping helps you prepare for a stressful event.
When Does Stress Become Dangerous?
In one way or another, stress contributes to most psychological and physical health problems. If you have good coping skills, you can minimize its impact on your health and relationships.
Stress becomes dangerous when it interferes with your ability for an extended period of time to live a normal life. For example, you may find yourself feeling “out of control” and have no idea how to fix even relatively minor problems. These feelings of helplessness can cause you to feel continually fatigued, unable to concentrate, or irritable.
Over time, chronic stress consumes more energy resources than your body can produce. Stress directly impacts your neuroendocrine stress pathways, changing your body’s nervous system and hormone levels, and ultimately weakening your body’s natural ability to cope with emotional stress and physical illness. Your hormones “burn out.” This emotional burnout, coupled with feelings of despair, can easily trigger (or worsen existing) chronic depression.
Stress triggers your body’s built-in response mechanisms; for example, have you ever found yourself sweating because you were about to miss a critical deadline? This reaction is caused by hormones that help our bodies cope with threats and uncertainties.
Not entirely bad, right? That physiological reaction can kick you into gear and give you that extra boost of energy to save the day. Problem is, the longer your mind feels stressed, the longer your physiological reaction systems remain activated – your body gets stuck in crisis mode, which can lead to serious health problems.
Severe and prolonged stress can age you. For example, some studies have shown that people who spend many years in the role of caregiver for severely ill or disabled family members are physically a decade older than their chronological age. Why? Their bodies were no longer able to fully regenerate blood cells.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as a “mind-body split.” Our mental states and physical states are inextricably bound. Our psychological or cognitive state of mind – what we think about – has just as much impact on how we function every day as our physiological condition.
Handling stress in unhealthy ways (e.g., overeating or alcohol abuse) may alleviate symptoms in the short term, but ends up creating significant health problems over time, and, ironically, more stress.
While stress doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get sick, it certainly increases the risk. We know that stress plays a major role in triggering and worsening cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, inflammatory arthritis, type 2 diabetes, some (e.g., viral) cancers and infectious diseases.
And stress can diminish your ability to recover from illness. People who have suffered heart attacks, for example, tend to have a much harder time bouncing back if they’re also experiencing major stressors, such as financial worries or alcohol abuse. On the other hand, the ability to effectively cope with stress can significantly speed recovery from a heart attack.