April is Stress Awareness Month. There is no set definition for the term stress. There is even debate as to whether stress is the cause of a problem or the result of one. Look at the following definitions:
At the most basic level, stress is our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event. (Mental Health Foundation, 2020)
In a medical or biological context, is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. (MedicineNet, 2020)
The first definition sees stress as the result of pressure, while the second sees stress as being the cause of a problem. Neither is more right than the other. 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.
At present, with the global COVID-19 pandemic being at its height in many countries, many people are experiencing stress levels that they may not have experienced before. There is huge uncertainty about people’s health and that of the economy, and much of what is happening is out of the control of the individual. People are concerned about their health and that of their loved ones; people’s relatives are dying; people are experiencing changes to their employment status and businesses; financial strain is at levels many have never had to endure, and those in financial hardship already may be being pushed even further into poverty; people already living in abusive environments might see an increase in domestic abuse incidents while living under lockdown conditions; and people are being expected to home-school their children as schools close, many of whom may be expected to work from home at the same time. Nurses and other frontline medical and support staff also face the additional stress of tackling the virus head on, sometimes without adequate staffing numbers, appropriate training, or the correct personal protective equipment. However the COVID-19 pandemic is additional stress that was not in our lives just a few months ago. Alongside the additional stress COVID-19 is causing, people will still be experiencing stress from areas of their life where they felt it before.
When we feel stressed, the hypothalamus communicates to the adrenal glands which then emit the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These are the hormones that control our “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream and enhances your brain's use of glucose. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a “fight or flight” situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system and the reproductive system.
Short-term stress can sometimes be beneficial. It can help you to deal with dangerous situations, and makes some people more productive and creative. However when stress is experienced for a long period of time, long term effects of adrenaline and cortisol can have significant detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health. The figure below from the American Institute of Stress (https://www.stress.org/how-stress-affects-your-body) shows how long term stress impacts health.
It is important that if you feel that stress is becoming a problem, consciously try to take measures to address the cause and effect of your stress. If there is something you can do to change the source of the problem (whether It be a family feud, debt problems, or workload) then take these steps. It may be difficult to do at first, but ultimately it should alleviate some of the stress that you feel. If you are unable to change the source of your stress, try to take measures to change your exposure to the source, and to strengthen your resilience and response by increasing your positive coping mechanisms.
Stress management techniques:
Eat a healthy, varied diet, take dietary supplements if required
Stay hydrated, and limit alcohol intake
Exercise several times per week
Practice relaxation techniques – meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises
Get a good nights sleep
Limit exposure to social media or media coverage that makes you feel negative or stressed
Make time for yourself and your hobbies – read a book, listen to music,
Maintain strong relationships with family and friends - discuss your feelings with them
Seek medical help if you feel your mental or physical health is suffering
Always remember that other people may be experiencing stressful situations that we may or may not be aware of. Even during the time of COVID-19, if you suspect someone might be struggling with stress, you can still reach out to them in a meaningful way. Make a phone call instead of sending a text, have a real conversation, suggest doing some exercise together over Skype, signpost them to organizations that may be able to help – for example financial or legal advice. It may help that person more than you could imagine, and is likely to improve your wellbeing too.
Further Reading and References
The American Institute of Stress: www.stress.org
The American Institute of Stress is a non-profit organization established in 1978, designed to serve as a clearing house for information on all stress related topics.
The American Heart Association: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management
The American Heart Association has information on ways that stress affects the body, as well as tips on managing stress.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America: www.adaa.org
The Mental Health Foundation: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress