In recent years, there has been a massive increase in mental health issues across all genders, age groups and cultures. This is a problem that will increase and will probably get worse before it gets better. Many people go through life accepting their problems, seeing them as “normal” or as a an inevitable consequence of their job, family life or upbringing. However, mental health issues always start somewhere and increasing amounts of research is looking at the link between stress and more serious disorders which can follow. Researchers define stress as a physical, mental, or emotional response to events that causes bodily or mental tension. Simply put, stress is any outside force or event that has an effect on our body or mind.
Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many people, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. However, stress is not always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price. Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response. The stress response is coordinated through two mechanisms:
1. changes in the activities of various brain regions and brain chemicals and
2. changes in the activity of a hormonal system.
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life – giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
The stress response also helps you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV but beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.
It is shocking to learn what stress is doing to our body and mind. According to Mental Health America (MHA), here is what stress can do to us:
- The Brain:
- Stress can cause headaches, sadness, lack of energy, nervousness, irritability, trouble concentrating, memory issues, difficulty sleeping, and even mental health disorders themselves.
- The Heart:
- If you are experiencing stress, you may have a faster heartbeat, heart palpitations, a rise in blood pressure, and an increased risk for high cholesterol and even heart attacks.
- The Stomach:
- The stomach can be affected by stress—nausea, aches, heartburn, weight gain, and appetite changes are some of the symptoms.
- The Pancreas:
- Stress can increase your risk for diabetes.
- The Intestines:
- Diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive problems can occur due to stress.
- The Reproductive Organs:
- For women, stress can cause irregular or painful periods and reduced sexual desire. In men, impotence, low sperm production, and reduced sexual desire may also occur.
- Other Effects:
- Other effects on your body due to stress may be acne, muscle aches, and a weakened immune system. Some women may also be at an increased risk for low bone density.
According to the American Psychological Association, nearly 70% of Americans experience physical and mental symptoms of stress.
A study that was also released in 2005 by the American Psychological Association presented some very startling stress related statistics. It found that the six leading causes of death at that time, accidents, suicide, lung ailments, heart disease, cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver, could all be linked back to stress. At that time stress-related issues were the reasons for a full two-thirds of visits to the family doctor. Sixty four percent of Americans were working on lowering the amount of stress that they dealt with on a daily basis.Speaking on a global scale stress touches nearly every home no matter how big or how small. According to a study that was done by the Foundation for Integrated Research In Mental Health in 2007 some numbers stood out. They found that on a global scale more than three fifths of all doctor visits were from issues due to stress. They also found that when examined globally almost a quarter of business executives and professionals reported extremely high levels of stress. These really are startling figures and highlight the ever-growing influence of stress and stress related illnesses on modern society. Stress can arise for many different reasons. It is different for everyone. It could be brought by the death of a loved one, a traumatic accident, illness, or a serious disease. It can also arise from daily situations like frustration, feelings of loneliness and worthlessness and job-related problems.
Many people who suffer from stress regularly are usually completely unaware of the fact that constant exposure to negative stress can lead to serious and chronic fatal diseases. Stress generally impairs your immune system. Without this system functioning well, you are likely to get sick with certain illnesses. Such common complaints as colds could affect you more often and in greater degree than usual. Weight can also become affected by stress. When under a lot of pressure, our bodies tend to consume our energy sources faster. These means you may feel the urge to eat more and in greater amounts. On the other hand, stressed out individuals who do not have time to eat may lose a lot of weight and endanger their health further due to a lack of essential nutrients. Many people also suffer from „comfort-eating” while under stress with the obvious consequences to follow. A stressed out individual may experience more stomach complaints when under stress. Loose bowels are also a natural reaction to stress due to chemical reactions that cause the stomach to digest food improperly.
As stated earlier, many sufferers of stress are fully unaware of the stress they are under and the symptoms until it is too late. Stress awareness is key in identifying signs of stress and the consequences that go with it. Looking for signs that your body or your mood is changing in any given stressful situation is essential in combating stress. Even though there is a multi-billion dollar industry dealing with stress and the effects of such modern diseases as burnout and breakdown, there are small things that can be done to raise one’s own awareness of stress levels.
To do this, one needs to be aware of reactions shown in stressful situations and be able to analyze how these reactions cause stress. One must differentiate between external and internal awareness. External awareness is any outside influence that stresses the senses and internal is anything from inside the body such as physical discomfort or pain. Internal awareness is harder to detect as our senses are usually preoccupied with what goes on around us from the outside. Various exercises can be undertaken to heighten awareness of key stressors. One of the simplest is an exercise to highlight first external awareness by concentrating intensely on all around and then the same for internal awareness. Another version is to mentally scan the body being aware of all the tension that could be there. Many people would find keeping a diary and record of general tension and stressors that occur during the day at any given time an alternative or a supplement to the above exercises. The main point is that being aware of the things that cause stress in the first place is the first step to combating it.
It is not always possible to control or eliminate the reasons of stress, but it is possible to act and behave in certain ways that could reduce or alleviate it. You cannot always control the conditions of your life and circumstances, but you can learn to choose not to be internally influenced by them too much.