All of us are subject to some or the other form of stress at some point in our lives. Stress means different things to different people. A school-going child may find facing a test stressful, an adolescent may find peer pressure stressful, while adults have their own stress related to the job, finance, and relationships. While some stress is healthy and can make us work harder, perform better, and adhere to deadlines, excess stress can have a negative impact on our body and mind. Excessive and prolonged stress can take a toll on our physical and mental health. This is because stress can trigger the body’s response to a perceived threat or danger, known as the fight-or-flight response, during which, certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released. This speeds up heart rate, slows digestion, shunts blood flow to major muscle groups, and changes various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function. But in cases of chronic stress, the relaxation response doesn’t occur often enough, and being in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight can cause damage to the body.
Before we go on to learning stress management, let us understand the ill effects of stress.
Musculoskeletal system: When body is stressed, muscles tense up. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, it may trigger other reactions of the body which may promote stress-related disorders such as tension headache, migraine, pain in the lower back and upper extremities, etc.
Respiratory system: Stress and strong emotions cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing, which can exacerbate breathing problems for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Further, it may also trigger an asthma or panic attack.
Cardiovascular system: Acute stress can cause an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, resulting in elevated blood pressure. Consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate and blood pressure, along with elevated levels of stress hormones can take a toll on the body. It can increase the risk for cardiovascular disorders such as hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
Endocrine system: When we perceive a situation as challenging, threatening, or uncontrollable, there is disturbance in the production of hormones such as glucocorticoids, catecholamines, insulin and prolactin. Chronic stress has been associated with development of numerous endocrine disorders including chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, etc. Stress also interferes with thyroid-stimulating hormone resulting in thyroid disorders.
Gastrointestinal system: When stressed, digestion slows down. Under chronic stress, people may eat much more or much less than usual, or they may use alcohol or tobacco to cope. Long-term stress can trigger constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion, or an upset stomach. Chronic stress over extended periods of time may lead to more serious issues, like irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal disorders.
Immune System: The immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced due to chronic stress. Chronic stress leads to persistently high cortisol and corticosteroid levels, which cause resistance to cortisol and impaired anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system. Such effects result in chronic infection, chronic inflammatory autoimmune diseases, or cancers as well as other physiological disorders.
Reproductive health: Stress inhibits the body’s main sex hormone gonadotropin-releasing hormone, and subsequently suppresses sperm count, ovulation and sexual activity. women’s levels of day-to-day stress have been found to be associated with lowered chances of pregnancy. For men, stress can affect testosterone production resulting in a decline in sex drive or libido, and can even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.
Mental Health: Chronic stress can lead to or exacerbate mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, cognitive problems, personality changes, and problem behaviours. People with high stress have abnormalities in the brain, including differences in the amount of grey matter versus white matter. Chronic stress creates these long-lasting changes in the brain which make the individual vulnerable to mental disorders.
How to manage stress
When we speak about stress management, generally four ‘a’s are employed as keys: avoid, alter, adapt and accept. But before we start, we need to understand what triggers our stress. Keep a stress diary and note down those situations that cause you to feel stressed, your physical, emotional and behavioural responses, your actions and their effect. Once you understand yourself, apply the four ‘a’s.
Avoid unnecessary stress: The best way to manage stress is to avoid it altogether.
- Avoid the person or situation that cause stress. For example, if you find that a certain person constantly complains which causes you to feel stressed, you can try avoiding that person.
- Learning to be assertive helps, especially if you have a tendency to please people and take on more work than you can handle. Sometimes we say ‘yes’ because we are afraid to offend others, and end up in a stressful situation. Say no, and let go of what others think.
- Address small issues before they become big problems. Sometimes saying sorry at the right moment can set things right, instead of a unpleasant confrontation at a later point.
- Avoid building up stressful chores. Do small chores right away instead of letting it build up to a large problem. For instance, if you put off doing dishes and laundry, it will only build up and stress you.
- Let go of unimportant tasks that can be attended at some other time, and focus on more important task on hand.
Alter the stressful situation: Sometimes, no matter how well organized we are, some problems arrive unannounced, and we have no choice but to confront them. Try to change the situation for the better.
- Address the issues. If there are interpersonal problems at work or at home that stresses you, address the matter instead of avoiding it. You can seek a counsellor or therapist’s help to sort issues with your spouse. If it is colleague or friend that is bothering you, speak to them, and let them know how their behavior is affecting you. Communicate your feelings without blaming them. Use ‘I’ statements like in “I feel humiliated when you tease me, and it is affecting my self-esteem.” At the same time be willing to compromise. When we ask someone to change their behaviour, we too should be willing to do the same. It is only when both people compromise, we will have a better chance of resolving an issue.
- Ask for help. If you are overburdened with work, talk to your employer openly about it and request for extended time or help of another colleague to complete the task on hand.
- Allocate tasks to others instead of doing it yourself. A lot of times, we may either have a tendency toward perfectionism or feel hesitant to ask help, and end up doing small tasks ourselves instead of giving it out to others, while we focus on more important tasks. Let go of perfectionism or hesitation, it is important that a task is completed than not completed. For instance, if you are a working mother, and you can afford it, employ a maid to do household chores. She may not do it as perfectly as you, but you will have less to worry about when you come home.
- Manage your schedule and time. If it is the traffic that bothers you, then try a route that is easy, else leave home early. Make sure to pay your bills and dues on time, and shop for groceries during the weekend, so that you don’t have to worry about it later on. You can make use of digital payments, online shopping, etc., instead of standing in long Q’s.
Accept things you cannot change
There are certain situations in life that we cannot ignore or alter. We may have no choice other than accepting them as part of our life.
- Find support from others. Speak to your family members, friends or anyone about what you are going through, and let them legitimize your feelings.
- Talk to a counsellor or therapist. A lot of times, we may not be able to change a situation, but ventilation makes us feel a lot better.
- Forgive the ones who have wronged you. Anger is an emotion that can drain you physically and mentally. Understand that a lot of times, other’s behaviour may have nothing to do with you, rather with their own personality, upbringing and values. See if you can find humour in a situation. An angry boss is a fertile source of memes and jokes. But be careful enough to be discreet and not get into trouble.
- Practice positive self-talk. A stressful situation can make us feel negative about ourselves and our abilities. Understand that while you may not be good at one thing, there may be a lot of other things you are good at. For instance, you may not be rich enough to buy expensive gifts to impress a love interest, however, you are kind, good-hearted and loyal. We may not have full control over how much we earn and what we can afford, but we have control over the type of person we can be. Feel good about the good traits that you have and work on them to build your self-confidence.
- Remember that there is always room for learning. If your source of stress is because you are unable to compete with colleagues because you lack a certain skill or knowledge, make provisions to learn. Take classes when you have time, practice them, and it will only be a matter of time when you will be on par with others.
- Learn from your mistakes. Though it may be very stressful at the present moment, in the larger scheme of things, and perhaps five or 10 years down the line, how much will it really matter? Remember the stressors you went through in your college? How much does it matter now? Reflect on poor choices or the mistakes have made, and let them be a teachable moment, instead of ruminating and feeling hopeless. You can always rebuild your life.
- See if you can reframe the issue, and look at the situation from a new point of view. Instead of feeling frustrated about the lockdown, look at it as an opportunity to bond with family members, relax, and learn new skills. Instead of negative thoughts such as, “I can’t do it”, try replacing them with more positive ones such as, “I can handle this”.
Adapt to the situation: Feeling that you are unable to handle the situation is one of the greatest stressors. Adapting involves changing ourselves, our expectations and our lifestyle to reduce stress.
- Make a list of things that bring you joy in life, such as your family, children, pets, movies, etc., and then call on that list when you’re stressed. It will not only help relax but put things into perspective and remind you about little joys in life.
- Make some time for yourself to practice silence, meditation, that will signal your body that you are safe. Also make time to do little things you enjoy such as gardening, recording music, drawing, etc. These activities will take your mind off the stressors and help you relax.
- There are several exercises such as yoga, muscle relaxation techniques, etc that are known to relax both mind and body. Try to do them regularly.
- Create a balanced schedule. Try to find a balance between work and family life, social activities and solitary pursuits, daily responsibilities and downtime.
- Take care of yourself. Eat well, drink plenty of water, sleep well and exercise. Pamper yourself once in a while with a spa, or a vacation. Life is not all about work, find little pleasures.
We all want to be able to lead a happier, healthier, and more productive life, but managing stress takes consistent effort, because these techniques are not just to create a balance between work, relationships, relaxation, and fun, but also to build resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head-on.