The word ‘stress’ is a part of our daily vocabulary. The World Health Organisation declared stress as the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century”. But do we really understand what it is? If asked what you think stress is, your response will probably be work, traffic, or even your mother-in-law! Life’s challenges are hard on us. However, these challenges and events are simply ‘stimulus events’ and can generally be put into 3 categories: traumatic events, daily hassles, and life events. These are called stressors and cause stress.
So, what is stress?
Stress is your body’s response to stimulus events. When your body’s response surpasses your ability to cope and disturbs your equilibrium, you enter a state of stress.
When handled properly, stress can actually increase your survival probability because not all stress is destructive or inherently bad. Eustress is the term used for ‘good stress’. It is good for you and works as an asset for managing crises and achieving peak performance. Stress is like electricity – it gives you energy, affects your performance, and boosts arousal. But, if the current is too high, it can cause damage to products and appliances. Similarly, high stress has negative effects and can adversely impact performance. This is ‘bad stress’, and is called distress.
Isn’t perceived stress just how we are experiencing stress? No!
It is important to learn to differentiate stress from perceived stress. While stress is your body’s response to the stressor (the stimulus event), perceived stress is the feeling of losing control. Humans seek control. Some consider control to be a biological and psychological necessity. Perceived stress is when we experience a lack of control in regard to our environment and life. And while it is different from stress, it too can cause you harm. Higher perceived stress can lead to fatigue, irritability, lack of motivation, digestive issues, headaches, sleep disturbances, and even substance abuse. So, next time you feel you are stressed, sit down and take a moment to understand whether you are experiencing perceived stress or stress. This helps us understand our current emotions and mental state better, holistically making us more self-aware, it also helps us calm down, as we take a moment to sit and understand what is going on. This short feeling of calmness doesn’t just help us ‘feel’ better, it helps our body relax too, and begin its descent back to a state of normalcy.
While perceived stress can be recognized by focusing on your emotions and your sense of control in the situation, stress will have psychological and physiological manifestations. Stress triggers hormonal changes that result in physiological changes. The most common symptoms of stress are tense muscles, sweating, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath.
Some other signs and symptoms of stress to look out for are:
- Memory problems
- Poor judgement
- Inability to concentrate
- Constant worrying
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loss of sex drive
- Disturbance in sleep patterns
- Developing habits like nail-biting, pacing, etc.
- Racing thoughts
- Frequent colds
When under stress, our body goes into the ‘fight or flight’ state.
As we evolved as mammals, this became our survival mechanism, to enable us to react instantly to life-threatening situations. Repeated activation of this ‘fight or flight’ state, over the years, has adverse consequences. Studies found that chronic stress leads to high blood pressure, brain changes that might contribute to anxiety, addiction, and depression, promotes clogging in arteries, and can also contribute to obesity.
If you regularly find yourself overwhelmed and frazzled, it’d be a good idea to step up and try to bring your nervous system back to a state of balance. You can start that by paying close attention to recognizing signs and symptoms of stress and trying to notice the stressors/triggers and seeking professional help.