What is stress?
There are two ways you can look at stress - you can change the stressor or you can change the way you look at it.
Stress is a feeling that's created when we react to particular events. It's the body's way of rising to a challenge and preparing to meet a tough situation with focus, strength, stamina, and heightened alertness.
The events that provoke stress are called stressors, and they cover a whole range of situations - everything from outright physical danger to making a class presentation or taking a semester's worth of your toughest classes.
The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase the body's energy. And sweat is produced to cool the body. All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment.
This natural reaction is known as the stress response. Working properly, the body's stress response enhances a person's ability to perform well under pressure. But the stress response can also cause problems when it overreacts or fails to turn off and reset itself properly.
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What's the difference between good and bad stress?
The stress response (also called the fight or flight response) is critical during emergency situations, such as when a driver has to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. It can also be activated in a milder form at a time when the pressure is on but there is no actual danger - like giving a presentation to your class, getting ready for a game, or sitting down for a final exam. A little of this stress can help keep you on your toes, ready to rise to a challenge. And, more importantly, the nervous system quickly returns to its normal state, standing by to respond again when needed.
But stress doesn't always happen in response to things that are immediate or that are over quickly. Ongoing or long-term events, like coping with loss or moving to a new environment, can cause stress, too. Long-term stressful situations can produce a lasting, low-level stress that can be hard on people. The nervous system senses continued pressure and may remain slightly activated and continue to pump out extra stress hormones over an extended period. This can wear out the body's reserves, leave a person feeling depleted or overwhelmed, weaken the body's immune system, and cause other problems.
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What causes stress overload?
- being exposed to violence or injury
- choosing unhealthy practices to manage stress, such as use or abuse of alcohol and other drugs
- relationship stress, family conflict, or emotions that can accompany a broken heart or the death of a loved one
- ongoing problems with schoolwork related to a learning disability (usually once the problem is recognized and the person is given the right learning support the stress disappears)
- crammed schedules, not having enough time to rest and relax, and always being on the go
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Signs of Stress Overload
Identifying the signs of stress overload often vary person to person. However, there are symptoms of stress that tend to cluster into four primary areas:
- Muscular symptoms of stress: tension headache, frowning, gritting or grinding teeth, jaw pain, stuttering or stammering, trembling lips or hands, muscle tension, neck ache, back pain, aggressive body language
- Autonomic symptoms of stress: increased sensitivity to light or sound, lightheadedness, dizziness, faintness, ringing in ears, blushing, dry mouth, frequent bouts of cold and flu, hives or rashes, heartburn, stomach cramping, nausea, difficulty breathing, increased perspiration, frequent urination, diarrhea
- Mental symptoms of stress: anxiety, worry, guilt, increased anger or frustration, moodiness, depression, change in appetite, racing thoughts, nightmares, problems concentrating, trouble learning new information, forgetfulness, disorganization or confusion, difficulty making decisions
- Behaviorial symptoms of stress: inattention to dress or hygiene, nervous habits (e.g., finger tapping, nail biting), pacing, increased frustration or irritability, overreaction to small things, reduced work efficiency or productivity, lies or excuses to cover up poor work, fast or mumbled speech, social withdrawal, constant fatigue, sleep problems, weigh change without change to diet or exercise
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Stress Management Tips
- Take a stand against overscheduling. If you're feeling stretched, consider cutting out an activity or two, opting for just the ones that are most important to you.
- Be realistic. Don't try to be perfect - no one is. And expecting others to be perfect can add to your stress level, too (not to mention put a lot of pressure on them!). If you need help on something, like schoolwork, ask for it.
- Get a good night's sleep. Getting enough sleep helps keep your body and mind in top shape, making you better equipped to deal with any negative stressors. In fast, getting a good night's sleep is associated with better grades and improved mood. Rate your rest here.
- Learn to relax. The body's natural antidote to stress is called the relaxation response. It's your body's opposite of stress, and it creates a sense of well-being and calm. The chemical benefits of the relaxation response can be activated simply by relaxing. You can help trigger the relaxation response by learning simple breathing exercises and then using them when you're caught up in stressful situations. Ensure you stay relaxed by building time into your schedule for activities that are calming and pleasurable: reading a good book or making time for a hobby, spending time with your pet, or just taking a few moments to, literally, breathe. For simple, short meditation exercises and to register for a free, six-week online course, check this out!
- Treat your body well. Experts agree that getting regular exercise and a healthy diet help people manage stress. (Excessive or compulsive exercise can contribute to stress, though, so as in all things, use moderation.) It's easy when you're stressed out to eat on the run, bt under stressful conditions, the body needs its vitamins and minerals more than ever. Some people may turn to substance abuse as a way to ease tension. Although alcohol and other drugs may seem to lift the stress temporarily, relying on them to cope with stress actually promotes more stress because it wears down the body's ability to bounce back.
- Watch what you're thinking. Your outlook, attitude, and thoughts influence the way you see things. Is your cup half full or half empty? A healthy dose of optimism can help you make the best of stressful circumstances. Even if you're out of practice or tend to be a bit of a pessimist, everyone can learn to think more optimistically and reap the benefits.
- Solve the little problems. Learning to solve everyday problems can give you a sense of control. Avoiding them can leave you feeling like you have little control and that just adds to stress. Develop skills to calmly look at a problem, figure out options, and take some action toward a solution. Feeling capable of solving little problems builds the inner confidence to move on to life's bigger ones - and it can serve you well in times of stress.
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