We all know what it’s like to feel stressed, but it’s not easy to pin down exactly what stress means. When we say things like “this is stressful” or "I'm stressed", we might be talking about:
- Situations or events that put pressure on us – for example, times where we have lots to do and think about, or don’t have much control over what happens.
- Our reaction to being placed under pressure – the feelings we get when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with.
You understand that not all stress is bad. You need certain amount of stress to excel in your life. You need certain kind of stress to keep you safe from danger. No matter the type and the nature of stress you are dealing with what is most essential is how you manage and cope with your stress. Managing external pressures, so stressful situations don’t seem to happen to you quite so often. Developing your emotional resilience is very important, so you’re better at coping with tough situations when they do happen and don’t feel quite so stressed.
Being under pressure is a normal part of life. It can be a useful drive that helps you take action, feel more energised and get results. But if you often become overwhelmed by stress, these feelings could start to be a problem for you. Stress isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, but it’s closely linked to your mental health in two important ways:
- Stress can cause mental health problems, and make existing problems worse. For example, if you often struggle to manage feelings of stress, you might develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression.
- Mental health problems can cause stress. You might find coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental health problem, as well as potentially needing to manage medication, heath care appointments or treatments, can become extra sources of stress.
You might find that your first clues about being stressed are physical signs, like tiredness, headaches or an upset stomach. This could be because when we feel stressed emotionally, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. This is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to a threat (sometimes called the 'fight or flight' response). If you’re often stressed then you’re probably producing high levels of these hormones, which can make you feel physically unwell and could affect your health in the longer term.
Factors that influence your stress tolerance
Your support network— Social engagement is the body’s most evolved strategy for responding to stress so it’s no surprise that people with a strong network of supportive friends and family members are better able to cope with life’s stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the less opportunity you have to utilize social engagement and the greater your vulnerability to stress.
Your exercise levels— Your physical and mental health are intrinsically linked, so the better you take care of your body, the greater resilience you’ll have against the symptoms of stress. Exercising regularly (for 30 minutes or more on most days) can lift your mood and help relieve stress, anxiety, anger, and frustration. It can also serve as a distraction to your worries, allowing you to find some quiet time and break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress and anxiety.
Your diet— The food you eat can also have a profound effect on your mood and how well you cope with life’s stressors. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress while eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs.
Your sense of control— It may be easier to take stress in your stride if you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges. If you feel like things are out of your control, you’re likely to have less tolerance for stress.
Your attitude and outlook— Optimistic people are often more stress-hardy. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humour, and accept that change is a part of life.
Your ability to deal with your emotions— You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or overwhelmed by a situation. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity and is a skill that can be learned at any age.
Your knowledge and preparation—The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.
How well do you handle stress in your life?
- I have people I confide in when I’m feeling under pressure who make me feel better.
- I feel comfortable expressing how I feel when something is bothering me.
- In general, I feel in control of my life and confident in my ability to handle what comes my way.
- I find reasons to laugh and feel grateful, even when going through difficulties.
- No matter how busy I am, I make it a priority to sleep, exercise, and eat right.
- I’m able to calm myself down when I start to feel overwhelmed.
No matter how powerless you may feel in the face of stress, you still have control over your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation. The first step is to recognise the true sources of stress in your life.
You can manage stress by applying the following principles:
- Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress.
- Social engagement is the quickest, most efficient way to rein in stress and avoid overreacting to internal or external events that you perceive as threatening.
- While stress is an automatic response from your nervous system, some stressors arise at predictable times—your commute to work, a meeting with your boss, or family gatherings, for example. When handling such predictable stressors, you can either change the situation or change your reaction.
- It’s not healthy to avoid a stressful situation that needs to be addressed, but you may be surprised by the number of stressors in your life that you can eliminate. Learn how to say “no.” Avoid people who stress you out. Take control of your environment.
- If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.
- How you think can have a profound effect on your stress levels. Each time you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were in the throes of a tension-filled situation. Regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude to stressful situations.
- Many sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stressors, such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than railing against a situation you can’t change.
- Beyond a take-charge approach and a positive attitude, you can reduce stress in your life by nurturing yourself. If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors.
Protect yourself by learning how to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress overload and take steps to reduce its harmful effects.