What is stress?
Stress is simply our reaction and adaptation to change, whether internal or external. It is impossible to exist without any type of change occurring, since even when we are sleeping our bodies are undergoing constant change all the way down to a molecular level.
Physiological stress occurs when demands on the body cause an upset in the natural homeostasis or balance of the body. Psychological or emotional stress occurs when events happen that we do not like and cannot or do not want to deal with, or when there are just too many demands on us and we feel like we cannot keep up.
A little bit of stress can be good in that it can help motivate us to be productive and accomplish things. Working out at the gym can be physically demanding on your body, but afterwards you may feel better from the sense of accomplishment and how much better you feel from regular exercise. Similarly, some people may need the pressure of last minute deadlines to get the work done that is needed and enjoy the adrenaline rush. Other people would consider this negative rather than positive stress.
If you look at the above chart, everyone has an optimal level of productive stress (
healthy tension) where tension serves as a positive and motivating force. Once that limit starts to be reached (
maximum activity), further tension becomes counterproductive and exhaustion and burnout will start to occur.
The key to stress management is learning to identify your level of stress well before you get to the top of the curve so that you can stay healthy and productive.
How do I know if I am under too much stress?
Often, chronic stress kind of sneaks up on us and we don’t realize how much tension we have been under until we are really stressed.
There are many signs and symptoms of excessive stress, as stress can manifest physically, mentally, emotionally, behaviorally or a combination of these four areas.
Physical stress may manifest as fatigue, frequent colds, aches and pains, GI distress, high blood pressure, headaches, chest pains, decreased sex drive or a worsening of a chronic health condition.
Cognitive signs of too much stress may show as problems with concentration and memory, a restless mind filled with anxious thoughts and worry, making bad decisions or unable to make decisions.
Emotionally, stress may manifest as irritability, moodiness, short tempered, feeling depressed, overwhelmed, lonely and isolated.
Behavior signs of feeling overwhelmed include different types of self-medication such as overeating, using alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or drugs to relax, sleeping too much or too little, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, wanting to isolate or withdraw from others.
If you recognize more than a few of these stress symptoms, it is time to look at making some positive changes in your life.
Things you can start focusing on right away would include making sure you are eating a healthy diet, you are getting regular exercise, you get enough sleep at night and you make time for enjoyable recreational activities.
Having a strong social support system is also valuable, as is learning and practicing stress reduction techniques such a yoga, tai chi, meditation or even spending time in nature. If you feel like you are just overwhelmed emotionally, then it may be time to seek counseling to learn ways to cope better.