Stress Causes, Symptoms, Relieve, Prevention

Stress Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention

What Is Stress?

Stress is your body’s physical and psychological response to anything you perceive as overwhelming. This may be viewed as a result of life’s demands, pleasant or unpleasant, and your lack of resources to meet them.

Stress Causes, Symptoms, Relieve, Prevention
Stress Causes, Symptoms, Relieve, Prevention

When stressed, your body creates extra energy to protect itself. This additional energy cannot be destroyed. If not used, it creates an imbalance within your system. Somehow the energy must be channeled into responses to regain a balance.

In general, stress is related to both external and internal factors. External factors include the physical environment, including your job, your relationships with others, your home, and all the situations, challenges, difficulties, and expectations you're confronted with on a daily basis. Internal factors determine your body's ability to respond to, and deal with, the external stress-inducing factors. Internal factors which influence your ability to handle stress include your nutritional status, overall health and fitness levels, emotional well-being, and the amount of sleep and rest you get.

Stress is a natural part of your life. Without some stress you would lose your energy for living. You will thrive on certain amounts; but too much or too little stress will limit your effectiveness. Ideally, you find your optimal level of stress—the balance at which you are most motivated.

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Causes of Stress

Everyone differs in what is stressful or potentially stressful. What for one person might seem to be a catastrophic event may be a minor setback for another.

Fears Cause Stress

Some physical fears that can cause stress are:

  • Dangerous machinery;
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals;
  • Dangerous, congested traffic.
Psychological fears associated with stress include:

  • Failure;
  • Not being able to get the job done;
  • Inability to manage debts; and
  • Adult children who do not want the family business.

Uncertainty Causes Stress

In each person’s life there are uncertainties that can cause stress. The change of a job may necessitate many other changes in the life of a person or family members. Trying to sell a home and buy another in the new location may be stressful. Logic and informed predictions have a place, but often stress piles up because there are so many “unknowns” in such situations.

Life is filled with uncertainty. It is discomforting not to know what is going to happen, particularly if your control of the situation is impeded by:

  • Government policies and controls;
  • Weather;
  • Market fluctuations;
  • Illness;
  • Interest rates;
  • Mechanical breakdowns; and
  • Accidents.
Uncertainty may cause feelings of being out of control, which can cause stress.

Attitudes Cause Stress

A positive or negative attitude influences a person’s reaction to stressful situations. For example, if you feel your job is worthwhile, you may see some of the problems you encounter as challenges. Seen as pluses, the problems or potential problems become motivators. However, if you resent your situation or feel “stuck” in your job, similar experiences create stress, a stress that frustrates instead of motivating you.

Perceptions Cause Stress

Past experiences and the resources you feel you have available to meet life’s demands will affect the degrees of stress you may experience. The degree of stress experienced will be affected by your perception of your ability to meet the particular demands. How you perceive the situation determines if it is or is not stressful.

Perception can be broken down in the following ways:

  • Self Your sense of competency, self-esteem, values, interests, needs.
  • Material resources: Finances, equipment, storage; and People resources: Other people who can assist you, such as friends, coworkers, family members, professionals.

Change Causes Stress

All change produces stress, even positive changes. Marriage is a positive change that is also a period when adjustment is necessary. For some people, this adjustment can be stressful. A vacation may also be stressful; arrangements must be made for the trip and for work, and there is always a tendency to plan too many activities.

Negative changes are not as difficult to identify as stress-producing. These are situations you would not like to occur, such as children leaving home to start careers, economic recession causing financial crisis, or loss of a valuable possession.

Change demands your adjustment to the particular situation, whether you desire the change or not. Developmental changes that you are able to plan for— pregnancy and birth, children growing up, the aging process—may still be stressful even though anticipated.

The following are more examples of stress-causing changes:

  • Work/business Operational change due to technological advancement; Major change in responsibility or work load due to shift in partnership; Expansion or reduction in production; Increasing skills to increase efficiency, and Inflationary operating costs.
  • Personal Illness or injury; Personal achievement or disappointment, and Retirement.
  • Social Illness or death of close friend; Beginning or ending of formal education; Change in social activities; and Involvement in community service.
  • Financial Major change in financial state; Major purchase (home, equipment, land); Additional family expenses (education, insurance, illness); and Partial liquidation. What changes have you and family members experienced in the past several years?

Who is most vulnerable to stress?

Stress comes in many forms and affects people of all ages and all walks of life. No external standards can be applied to predict stress levels in individuals -- one need not have a traditionally stressful job to experience workplace stress, just as a parent of one child may experience more parenting stress than a parent of several children. The degree of stress in our lives is highly dependent upon individual factors such as our physical health, the quality of our interpersonal relationships, the number of commitments and responsibilities we carry, the degree of others' dependence upon us, expectations of us, the amount of support we receive from others, and the number of changes or traumatic events that have recently occurred in our lives.

But it is possible to make some generalizations. People with adequate or strong social support networks report less stress and overall improved mental health in comparison to those without adequate social support. People who are poorly nourished, who get inadequate sleep, or who are physically unwell also have a reduced capacity to handle pressures and stresses of everyday life and may report higher stress levels. Some stressors are particularly associated with certain age groups or life stages. Children, teens, newly married, working parents, single parents, and seniors are examples of the groups who often face common stressors related to life transitions.

Stress Causes, Symptoms, Relieve, Prevention

Teen stress

As one example of stress related to a life transition, the teen years often bring about an increase in perceived stress as young adults learn to cope with increasing demands and pressures along with changes in their bodies. Studies have shown that excessive stress during the teen years can have a negative impact upon both physical and mental health later in life. For example, teen stress is a risk factor for the development of depression, a serious condition that carries an increased risk of suicide.

Fortunately, effective stress-management strategies can diminish the ill effects of stress. The presence of intact, strong, supportive social support networks among friends, family, educational and religious or other group affiliations can help reduce the subjective experience of stress during the teen years. Recognition of the problem and helping teens develop stress-management skills can also be valuable preventive measures. In severe cases, a physician or other health-care professional can recommend counseling or other treatments that can reduce the long-term risks of teen stress.

How stress affects the body

Common symptoms of stress include:

  • A fast heartbeat.
  • A headache.
  • A stiff neck and/or tight shoulders.
  • Back pain.
  • Fast breathing.
  • Sweating, and sweaty palms.
  • An upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea.
Over time, stress can affect your:

Immune system. Constant stress can make you more likely to get sick more often. And if you have a chronic illness such as AIDS, stress can make your symptoms worse.

Heart. Stress is linked to high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia), blood clots, and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). It's also linked to coronary artery disease, heart attack, and heart failure.

Muscles. Constant tension from stress can lead to neck, shoulder, and low back pain. Stress may make rheumatoid arthritis worse.

Stomach. If you have stomach problems, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, or irritable bowel syndrome, stress can make your symptoms worse.

Reproductive organs. Stress is linked to low fertility, erection problems, problems during pregnancy, and painful menstrual periods.

Lungs. Stress can make symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) worse.
Skin. Skin problems such as acne and psoriasis are made worse by stress.

How stress affects your thoughts and emotions

You might notice signs of stress in the way you think, act, and feel. You may:

  • Feel cranky and unable to deal with even small problems.
  • Feel frustrated, lose your temper more often, and yell at others for no reason.
  • Feel jumpy or tired all the time.
  • Find it hard to focus on tasks.
  • Worry too much about small things.
  • Feel that you are missing out on things because you can't act quickly.
  • Imagine that bad things are happening or about to happen.

Ways to Relieve Stress

Ways to relax your mind

Let your feelings out. Talk, laugh, cry, and express anger when you need to. Talking with friends, family, a counselor, or a member of the clergy about your feelings is a healthy way to relieve stress.

Do something you enjoy. This can be:
  • A hobby, such as gardening.
  • A creative activity, such as writing, crafts, or art.
  • Playing with and caring for pets.
You may feel that you're too busy to do these things. But making time to do something you enjoy can help you relax. It might also help you get more done in other areas of your life.

Meditate. When you meditate, you focus your attention on things that are happening right now. Paying attention to your breathing is one way to focus. 

Write. It may help to write about things that are bothering you. Write for 10 to 15 minutes a day about stressful events and how they made you feel. Or think about starting a stress journal. This helps you find out what is causing your stress and how much stress you feel. After you know, you can find better ways to cope.

Stress Causes, Symptoms, Relieve, Prevention
Avoid Stress

Ways to relax your body

Exercise. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress. Walking is a great way to get started. Even everyday activities such as housecleaning or yard work can reduce stress. Stretching can also relieve muscle tension. For more information about becoming more active, see the topic Fitness.

Try techniques to relax. Breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and yoga can help relieve stress.

Yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. These techniques combine exercise and meditation. You may need some training at first to learn them. Books and videos are also helpful. You can do all of these techniques at home.

Ways to Avoid Stress

Stress is a part of life, and you can't always avoid it. But you can try to avoid situations that can cause it, and you can control how you respond to it.

Look at your lifestyle

The choices you make about the way you live affect your stress level. Your lifestyle may not cause stress on its own, but it can prevent your body from recovering from it.

Find a balance between personal, work, and family needs. This isn't easy. Start by looking at how you spend your time. Maybe there are things that you don't need to do at all. Finding a balance can be especially hard during the holidays.

Have a sense of purpose in life. Many people find meaning through connections with family, friends, jobs, or volunteer work.

Get enough sleep. Your body recovers from the stresses of the day while you are sleeping.

Adopt healthy habits. Eat a healthy diet, limit how much alcohol you drink, and don't smoke. Staying healthy is your best defense against stress.

Manage your time

Time management is a way to find the time for more of the things you want and need to do. It helps you decide which things are urgent and which can wait. Managing your time can make your life easier, less stressful, and more meaningful.

Learn to Handle Stress

Stress is a normal part of living. Everyone faces it to some degree. The causes of stress can be good or bad; desirable or undesirable, such as a promotion on the job or the loss of a spouse. Properly handled, stress need not be a problem. But unhealthy responses to stress, such as driving too fast or erratically, drinking too much, or prolonged anger or grief, can cause a variety of physical and mental problems. Even on a very busy day, find a few minutes to slow down and relax. Talking over a problem with someone you trust can often help you find a satisfactory solution. Learn to distinguish between things that are worth fighting about and things that are less important.

Exercise Regularly

Almost everyone can benefit from exercise, and there is some form of exercise almost everyone can do. If you have any doubt, check first with your doctor. Usually, as little as 15 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week will help you have a healthier heart, eliminate excess weight, tone up sagging muscles, and sleep better. Think how much difference all these improvements could make in the way you feel.

Eat Sensibly

A person’s ability to cope with stress is affected by his/her nutritional status. Poor nutrition before and during periods of high stress will make you more likely to develop health problems and will reduce your ability to cope with stress. Prolonged stress affects nutritional status in the following ways:

Stress causes our body to need more of certain nutrients that are directly involved in the stress response. Other nutrients are lost from the body at an increased rate.

Stress often leads to altered eating habits, including an increased intake of snack foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt. Consuming excess amounts of these components may lead to obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

To get all the nutrients you need for body requirements during stress, you should eat a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, whole-grain and enriched breads, cereals, and other grain products, milk, cheese, yogurt, meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and dry beans and peas. If you eat a variety of foods in sufficient amounts, there will be no need to take vitamin/mineral pills, except in a few cases such as during pregnancy. Be careful not to eat excessive amounts of sweet, salty, or high-fat snack foods.

Get support

Support in your life from family, friends, and your community has a big impact on how you experience stress. Having support in your life can help you stay healthy.

Support means having the love, trust, and advice of others. But support can also be something more concrete, like time or money. It can be hard to ask for help. But doing so doesn't mean you're weak. If you're feeling stressed, you can look for support from:

  • Family and friends.
  • Coworkers, or people you know through hobbies or other interests.
  • A professional counselor. (See tips for finding a counselor or therapist.)
  • People you know from church, or a member of the clergy.
  • Employee assistance programs at work, or stress management classes.
  • Support groups. These can be very helpful if your stress is caused by a special situation. Maybe you are a caregiver for someone who is elderly or has a chronic illness.

How does the response to stress work?

While the complete story is not fully known, scientists understand much about how the response to stress works. The two main systems involved are the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). (These systems are described later.) Triggered (activated) primarily by an area in the brain stem (lowest part of brain) called the locus coeruleus, the SNS results in the secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine. The following are the five most important concepts to remember about these two systems:

  • They are governed by a feedback loop to regulate their response. (In a feedback loop, increased amounts of a substance -- for example, a hormone -- inhibit the release of more of that substance, while decreased amounts of the substance stimulate the release of more of that substance.)
  • They interact with each other.
  • They influence other brain systems and functions.
  • Genetic (inherited) variability affects the responses of both systems. (That is, depending on their genes, different people can respond differently to similar stresses.)
  • Prolonged or overwhelming responses of these systems can be harmful to an individual.