What is stress?
Stress was a term used in the 1950s by Hans Selye to describe a condition in which patients failed to cope with adverse life events. Resulting in medically unexplained problems like fatigue, muscular pain, gut disorders and headaches. Later on this list was extended by other writers to include mental health issues such as anxiety, insomnia and panic disorder.
It is likely that ‘stress’ is a mistranslation from the original German in which Selye wrote, and that he was merely referring to bodily distress: changes in the adrenal glands, gut, heart and immune system that occurred as individuals failed to cope with life changes. After a while the body starts to fail, unable to support the increased load.
As the meaning of ‘stress’ has changed over the past seventy years it has become an over-used term to describe the suffering that people go through when they cannot cope. Leading first to frustration, and then on from there to anxiety disorders, burnout, depression or physical illness.
The causes of stress
‘Stress’ has now become a vague reference, meaning little more than a group of distressing mental and physical symptoms. Moreover, individuals vary greatly in the way they adapt to adverse life events, from physical breakdown to a complete absence of symptoms. For those reasons it it is impossible to assign a one-to–one causal relationship between life events and stress symptoms.
However, it is possible to list a number of sources for distressed reactions. These include:
- Severity of life events. Selye believed the stress condition evolved over roughly two years prior to illness. Two years in which people struggled with a mounting number of life events: unemployment, relationship problems, financial hardship, overwork, childcare, moving home, illness and bereavement being the most common. When more than two major life events occur within two years a breakdown in health may result if resilience is not present. To take the Holmes and Rahe Stress test use this link here.
- Prior history of mental health problems. Individuals are more likely to develop stressed reactions if they have a history of chronic anxiety.
- Poor social networks. Distress is far more prevalent in socially isolated individuals, and amongst those who find it difficult to build relationships. Research shows that social support is the most important difference between those who manage stressful life events, and those who succumb to them.
- Poor resilience. Resilience is another common difference between those who adapt to adversity, and those who don’t. Resilience skills include self-care, clear thinking, assertive communication, emotionally intelligent relationships, self-efficacy and problem-solving. Those low in such skills have poor coping mechanisms: they will be far more likely to develop anxiety, and will tend to withdraw rather than ask for help.
Symptoms of emerging stress
Keeping in mind that ‘stress’ can refer both to adverse life events, as well as the physical and mental health problems that appear when individuals are unable to cope, some key early-warning signs are listed below.
- Agitation. Feeling tense, restless, sometimes panicky. This may also manifest as irritability.
- Racing thoughts. Over-thinking, worrying, focusing on the worst outcome, unable to make decisions.
- Overwhelmed. With responsibilities, problems, thoughts, work-loads, decisions.
- Insomnia. Unable to switch off from problems. Waking up frequently during the night due to an over-dose of adrenalin.
- ‘Brain fog’. Inability to concentrate, fuzzy thinking, and forgetfulness.
- Substance abuse. Comfort eating (carbohydrates and junk food), alcohol and sedative drugs.
- Numbness. Emotionally disconnected. Loss of pleasure in activities you used to enjoy. This may lead to withdrawal.
Physical symptoms of stress
Physical signs may emerge later than those in the previous list. They include:
- Breathing problems
- Panic attacks
- Persistent headaches
- Medical unexplained pain
- Gut problems
- High blood pressure
- Appetite changes
If you have been struggling with a group of intractable life problems for at least six months, and have at least three symptoms in the first list you should consider your options. If, in addition, you have any of the symptoms in the second list you should seek professional help.
An effective stress management program should include more than palliatives such as calming techniques, massage, complementary health products, and distraction activities. It should address the underlying roots of your distress. Indeed, you may need to revise your entire approach to life. To that end you might consider professional assistance.
If work is your main source of distress you should re-negotiate your employment terms, or change your job. This may entail reconsidering your career objectives and priorities in life. If you are suffering from any of the physical symptoms in the second list you may need to take fitness leave. This, at least, will give you some space to consider your options.
If you are struggling with family responsibilities: childcare, care of elderly parents, financial burdens, partnership support, etc. then you should rebalance the care you give to others with care for yourself. This may mean asking others to share responsibilities, reaching out for help and support, and taking more time out.
Relationship problems (including conflict, separation, breakdown, divorce and reconciliation) are the most common sources of stress reported by individuals, alongside work-related problems. If partnership problems apply to you then you might wish to consider couple therapy. If you are undergoing separation or divorce then you may need a good lawyer, as well as personal or therapeutic support.
If you are going through a life crisis: bereavement, criminal prosecution, redundancy, bankruptcy, or loss of your home, then you may need help in developing personal resilience while you manage the crisis.
To find out more on how to develop resilience look at these articles here:
To improve your mental health, consider this article here.
If you are struggling with anxious thoughts, read this article.
For more tips on stress management read this article.