Vikki Knott is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Canberra and has extensive experience in applied research in Health Psychology. This article is based on the content of seminar she gave to the Association.
What is stress?
Stress is a feeling that we are all familiar with, and is the result of being exposed to stressors. Stressors can be anything that places some kind of demand on us, and the feeling of stress is experienced when we lack the resources to meet those demands.
Stress can have an impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing as well as an impact on our behaviour. The stress response is the ‘fight or flight’ reaction we experience when faced with a sudden threat. This refers to the physiological changes that occur in the body when under stress: increased heart rate, increased respiration and muscle tension. Once the danger has passed, the body returns to normal. This is acute stress, when there is a clear on and off pattern. This reaction works well for us when we’re facing immediate danger, but it doesn’t help if it persists in the long term.
A little stress in our lives is necessary. It can protect us from immediate danger, and can motivate us to face new challenges. It’s when we don’t have the resources to cope with these challenges and demands on an ongoing basis that stress becomes too much and performance decreases. This is called chronic stress.
While acute stress passes once the danger has subsided, chronic stress occurs when stressors remain. Unfortunately, most stressors in the modern Western world tend to be persistent: financial strain, relationship tension, problems at work. With chronic stress, the response is maintained over a long period of time, and this causes a multitude of negative impacts on our physical and emotional health, as well as our behaviour.
There are many physical health problems linked to stress in the medical literature.
Emotional responses to stress include:
What are the health implications of chronic stress?
Stress has been linked with diseases such as cancer, heart disease and many others. When the body experiences chronic stress, it becomes exhausted and the immune system is weakened, making the body more susceptible to disease.
The changing patterns of illness in society indicate the impact stress can have on our physical health. In the early 1900s most conditions were infectious and we have been able to address these with our knowledge of medicine. Today’s society has seen a huge increase in non-infectious conditions such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. These increases can be linked to stress and the behaviours that it causes.
When we experience stress, we often engage in behaviours that are bad for our health. Poor nutrition, smoking, alcohol and drug use, lack of exercise, risky sexual behaviour and lack of engagement in regular medical screening, are all behaviours linked to stress. While there are a multitude of factors contributing to the increases in these non-infectious illnesses, stress is still a major factor.
Anger is a common response to stress, but does it help?
There have been studies conducted looking at the impact of anger on physical health. Anger is a common emotional response to stress and has been linked to both heart disease and cancer. Greater expression of anger is linked with heart disease, whereas the opposite is true for cancer. Studies have found that those that repress feelings of anger are more likely to have cancer at some point in their lives. This tells us that balance is key for good health; it is not good to overtly express anger all of the time, and it is not good to repress feelings of anger all of the time. The best thing to do is to solve the problem that is leading to the feeling of anger in the first place. We need to deal with the stressors in our lives that make us feel angry.
Are you in control?
There are things you can do to deal with internal and external demands that we perceive as stressful. Whether or not the stressor is controllable is very important. Problem-based coping is useful when you are dealing with a controllable stressor. This is a process of identifying a stressor and taking actions to remove that stressor from your life.
Most stressors that we are exposed to, however, are not controllable. For these stressors, emotion-focused coping is best.
Are you stressed at work?
Work is one of the most common causes of stress in today’s society. Working conditions, such as too much work, lack of control, job insecurity, inadequate training and unrealistic goals and targets, all contribute to work-related stress. Workplace bullying can also be a significant stressor, with both chronic and acute impacts. Stress in the workplace can often lead to burn out, reduced productivity, decreased commitment to the job, increased absenteeism and increased physical illness.
Many jobs are high demand/low control. This means that the job we are doing is demanding but that we have little control over it. The best way to deal with this kind of situation is to meet with your supervisor and negotiate more control over your work, and/or to reduce work demands to a manageable level.
What can you do to deal with uncontrollable stressors?
There are other times in one’s life when stress cannot be controlled or managed using problem-based coping methods. When coping with uncontrollable stressors, we need to adopt an approach that helps us deal with our emotions.
Choose from the following techniques to help you deal with these stressors:
- Relaxation is one of the best ways to deal with stress. If you practice relaxation regularly, even when you are not stressed, you will be less susceptible to becoming stressed in the first place.
- Progressive muscle relaxation is a useful technique. This involves gradually tensing particular parts of your body and then releasing them slowly. Start with your feet, tense and hold them tense for a moment, and then release. Slowly work your way up through the rest of your body. Practice this technique when you are feeling stressed, and also when you are not, to increase its relaxing effect. If you find it difficult to tense your muscles, just pay attention to them one by one and let them relax. For more information on different relaxation techniques:
- Mindfulness is another effective method to de-stress. We are all often so busy that we forget to pay attention to our own bodies and what is around us. Mindfulness is the art of observing, observing your thoughts, what your body is feeling and what exists around you. You can practice this technique as a mindfulness meditation. Take the time to sit and observe your thoughts and how you are feeling – without judgement. You can also practice mindfulness in your daily life. Next time you are walking to the bus or a meeting at work, do not rush but instead take note and pay attention to what is around you.
“How often are we in the shower and we have everyone in there with us? Say if we are having a meeting that day, everyone who is in that meeting is in the shower and we’re constantly thinking about what we’ve got to do. Mindfulness is about just being still and noticing what is really around us; noticing the water dripping on us; noticing the steam in the shower.”
For more information on mindfulness meditation, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc.
- Yoga, meditation, art, reading and exercise are all effective ways to help minimise stress. Often engaging in activities such as these will also help you to create new relationships and build a strong social support network that will help you to deal with stress more effectively. All of these activities are things that you can do on a regular basis.
For those with severe chronic stress, it is important to find professional help.
Are you listening to your body?
Stress is a common part of modern Western life and it can have serious impacts on a person’s health and wellbeing. You need to listen to your body and be aware of your behaviours. Chronic stress is not healthy; it’s actually harmful for the human body to be in that heightened state of arousal for long periods of time.
If you are feeling stressed, you need to determine whether the stressor is something you can control or something you can’t. If you can control it, then use problem-based coping to eliminate the stressor from your life. If it is out of your control, then use emotion-focused coping. Find what works best for you. Practice relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and positive self-talk and look after yourself. Get adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise. A healthy person with a balanced lifestyle is much better equipped to deal with stressful situations.
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