What is stress and how to help handle it?
Stress impacts nearly every system in your body. The nervous system responds to stress by releasing hormones designed to make you more alert, including adrenaline and cortisol. With the release of these hormones, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises, your muscles tighten, your breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. In other words, you’re ready to respond in a physical way to a perceived threat, either by fighting or fleeing.
Your nervous system responds in a similar way to both emotional and physical threats, so a stressful situation at work or an argument with a loved one can trigger the same reaction in your body as a near-miss traffic accident. The more your body experiences stressful situations, the harder it is to shut off that emergency stress response.
According to Safe Work Australia, mental disorders arising from workplace stress have become an increasingly important concern for employees, employers and the general public.
Symptoms of stress
Symptoms of stress can impact your body, mind and behaviour, both at home and at work. Long-term stress can trigger or worsen both physical and mental health issues.
- Sleep problems
- Tiredness and fatigue
- High blood pressure
- Changes in sex drive
- Muscle tension, such as a tight jaw
- Stomach cramps
- Grinding or clenching teeth
Your mind and behaviour
- Anxiety and worry
- Overeating or undereating
- Anger and irritability
- Increase in drinking or drug use
- Mood changes
- Depression and sadness
Muscles contract when the fight or flight response is triggered, which is why stress can cause aches and pains, headaches, migraines, trembling, shaking and problems with mobility.
Stress hormones can cause stomach problems. The central nervous system communicates directly with the nerves that control digestion, which is why diarrhoea, stomach cramps or constipation can all be caused by stress.
Stress has also been linked to serious cardiovascular problems. Emotional stress is associated with increased activity in the amygdala – the region of the brain involved in stress – and that increased activity brings a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.
Short bursts of stress can boost our immune systems by limiting inflammation, but long periods of stress can have the opposite effect, leading to more inflammation. Stress can also compromise the work of white blood cells, which fight off viruses and bacteria.
The links between stress and mental health and wellbeing are complex and personal. Many factors can influence how we respond to stress, including family genetics, personality, life events, mental health history, lifestyle, and the conflicting demands of home and work.
Men can be reluctant to admit they’re under stress because many men still don’t like to talk about their feelings. Common signs might be increased irritability, snapping at family, drinking too much or using drugs to cope.
According to research by Lifeline, 90% of Australians need to stress less and 74% of people report being stressed from work.
Common triggers for stress
Everyone is different, but there are some situations or life events that cause many of us to experience stress. The most common include:
- Family or relationship breakdowns
- Death of a spouse
- Job loss
- Money problems
- Health concerns for yourself or someone close to you
- Traumatic events including abuse or accidents
- Caring for a newborn child
How to improve your ability to handle stress
Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress and boost your mood. Exercising outdoors in nature can supercharge the benefits. Something as simple as a walk in a park can lift your mood, especially if you focus on calm breathing and mindful awareness as you walk. Stretching exercises can help alleviate muscle tension.
Food and drink
Cutting back on alcohol, giving up smoking, limiting your intake of caffeine and following a healthy diet can all help to reduce stress. Research has shown that people who eat more fruit and vegetables may experience higher levels of wellbeing. If you find yourself eating at your desk, try to take a proper lunchbreak instead.
Mindfulness can help you become more aware of your thoughts and focus on the present, instead of simply reacting to negative thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness can also help you become more aware of how you feel, so you can monitor your stress levels and take action if they’re getting out of control. This video explains how mindfulness works and how you can try it for yourself.
Relaxation and meditation
Relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation are calming practices that can slow down your breathing and activate your body’s relaxation response. Beyond Blue has a selection of breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises and guided visualisations designed to help reduce stress.
Laughter lights up the reward centres in the brain, giving us a quick hit of dopamine that makes us feel good. According to a study by Lifeline, 98% of Australians says humour and laughter can reduce their stress levels.
Connecting with other people can trigger hormones that reduce stress, which is why it’s important to reach out to someone if you’re feeling stressed. That could be a professional counsellor or a friend or colleague.
Engaging your senses
Take a break from technology and engage your senses instead. Listen to soothing music, smell a flower, gaze at a favourite photo, snuggle under a soft blanket or savour a tasty snack.
Doing something you love can improve your mental health and reduce your stress levels.
Controlling what you can
Sorting out personal conflicts, postponing major life events and learning to say no at work can all help to reduce unhealthy levels of stress.
Courses and apps
Many organisations run stress management courses, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to participate in a course. THIS WAY UP offers a free online course called Coping with Stress that can help you manage stress levels. You could also try the Reachout Breathe app that can help you reduce the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety by slowing down your breathing and heart rate.
If you need help right now
If you or someone close to you needs help now, contact these phonelines or websites.
For crisis support:
For general mental health support:
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.
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