A Definition of Stress
Stress is the way the body responds to demands. While we most often refer to stress as a negative factor in our lives, stress is not always bad. Stress may be positive or negative, as determined by the event and the response to it. Eustress, or positive stress, is motivating and helps us focus our energy, is short term, is a perceived component of our coping abilities, feels exciting, and improves our performance. Distress, or negative stress, causes anxiety or concern, may be short or long term, is perceived as being outside of our coping abilities, feels unpleasant, decreases our performance, and leads to mental and physical problems.
Causes of Stress
There are several different causes of stress. General causes of stress include threats, fear, uncertainty, and cognitive dissonance, or a disconnect between our actions and our thoughts. People often experience stress as a result of work, illness, family life, relationships, money, and physical changes, among other causes of stress. Typically, stress is caused by a person’s perceptions, which may or may not be an accurate reflection of reality.
Stressors, or the situations and pressures that cause stress, may be external or internal. Common external stressors include major life changes, work or school, relationship difficulties, financial problems, being too busy or overwhelmed, or children and family. Common internal stressors include chronic worry, pessimism, negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations or perfectionism, a lack of flexibility, and an all-or-nothing attitude.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
Stress affects our bodies in a multitude of ways. When stress becomes so common that it is our way of life, we need to be aware of the ways in which it affects us so that we can get our stress levels under control. In fact, it is important to manage stress because it can damage our health, mood, relationships, and quality of life.
If you are experiencing high levels of negative stress, you will most likely exhibit cognitive, emotional, physical, and/or behavioral symptoms.
- Cognitive symptoms of stress include
- Memory problems
- An inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Being anxious or experiencing racing thoughts
- Constantly worrying
- Emotional symptoms of stress include
- Moodiness, irritability, or a short temper
- Agitation or an inability to relax
- Feeing overwhelmed
- Having a sense of loneliness and isolation
- Being depressed or generally feeling unhappy
- Physical symptoms of stress include
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain and/or rapid heartbeat
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Behavioral symptoms of stress include
- Eating more or less than usual
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Isolating yourself
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to help you relax
- Beginning nervous habits such as nail biting or pacing
How to Limit the Effects of Stress on the Body
According to Greatist, 54% of Americans are concerned about the level of stress they experience in their daily lives. While some people seek therapy or medication to help manage their stress, there are other things that people can begin doing immediately to limit the effects of stress on the body. These stress management techniques include
- Starting progressive relaxation or light yoga
- Deep breathing
- Listening to music
- Laughing it off
- Getting a massage
- Taking a nap
- Spending time with a pet
- Taking a walk
- Writing it out
Staying Healthy Despite a High Level of Stress
When your stress is a long-term issue that becomes chronic stress, your body is affected by releasing high levels of cortisol for long periods of time. Over time, exposure to these hormones may have mental or physical effects on you. In fact, “people who suffer from chronic or long-term stress can experience symptoms like anxiety, depression and sleep problems. Physically, they risk high blood pressure, heart disease and digestive problems.” Those who suffer from chronic stress also must deal with a weakened immune system.
People who suffer from chronic stress are susceptible to chronic inflammatory conditions and have a weaker immune system than they should. This leaves chronic stress sufferers vulnerable to autoimmune conditions such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This also means chronic stress sufferers are more susceptible to contracting an infection or disease.
To ward off the effects of stress on the immune system, people turn to probiotics. Some of the bacteria that resides in our large intestine is good bacteria that helps to control bad bacteria by producing substances to inhibit or kill the pathogens that can make us sick. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are two types of bacteria that are best for boosting our immune system and keeping us healthy during stressful times, so people should look for probiotics that contain those strains of bacteria.
Researchers also are learning that gut bacteria has the ability to influence the brain; the bacteria in the large intestine can impact both our emotional responses to stress and our moods. Additionally, French researchers have found that people who take probiotics containing Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum have decreased amounts of anger and depression and an increased ability to solve problems. Studies also show that people who take probiotics report having less stress.
While we may not be able to completely avoid or eliminate stress in our lives, we certainly can be aware of how it affects our bodies and take steps to manage our stress and improve our health in spite of it.