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What is stress?

Almost everyone experiences stress from time to time, and while a small amount of stress can motivate us, too much or prolonged stress can be damaging to both our physical and mental health. There are many things in life that can cause stress, including work, relationships, family issues and financial problems. For some people, stress causes them to adopt unhealthy coping methods such as smoking or drinking - and while this may feel like a quick fix, ultimately these are covering the issue. Recognizing what causes you stress and learning how to manage these feelings effectively, ultimately, is the healthiest and most effective way to feel good and live a happy life.

What is stress?

Stress is an innate reaction embedded from our caveman days. Humans had to deal with threatening situations, which caused our brains to release a range of ‘stress chemicals’ such as cortisol and adrenaline to provoke what is known as the fight-or-flight reaction. The fight reaction would give us a burst of energy, ready to fight for our lives, while the flight reaction would encourage us to flee from danger and protect ourselves. These days, we rarely encounter threatening situations. However, our brains continue to react in this way when we are under pressure.

Stress typically begins as pressure – from ourselves or others – and if we are unable to cope with this pressure, we feel stressed. The effects of stress will differ from person to person, but if left untreated it can lead to illness.

When we experience pressure without an option for fight-or-flight, the stress chemicals can build up and affect our immune system and blood pressure. Over time this build-up of stress can affect our mental health too, leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

Causes of stress

All sorts of situations can cause stress, and the causes will depend on the individual - what may cause stress for one person may not be stressful for another. Having said this, most stressful situations are associated with change or a lack of control. Even if the change is a positive one, it can still be stressful.

Some common causes of stress include:

  • getting married

  • moving house

  • having a baby

  • serious illness

  • bereavement

  • divorce

In some cases, the absence of change or activities in life can be another source of stress. As well as events like these, stress can also be caused by long-term circumstances, such as:

  • being unemployed

  • having financial issues

  • relationship difficulties

  • caring for a disabled family member/friend

  • problems at work

  • lock down

Stressful events outside the norm of human experience, such as being abused, may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Stress symptoms As previously mentioned, stress is experienced individually and some personalities find themselves more susceptible to stress than others. Having said this, there are certain symptoms that are commonly associated with stress. These can affect us both emotionally and physically.

Emotional stress symptoms

  • Feeling agitated, frustrated or quick to anger.

  • Feeling overwhelmed and teary.

  • Feeling anxious.

  • Having a low sense of self-esteem.

  • Avoiding other people and social situations.

Physical stress symptoms

  • Using alcohol/drugs/food to seek comfort.

  • Difficulty sleeping.

  • Digestive problems and upset stomach.

  • Feeling dizzy.

  • Sweating excessively.

  • Experiencing chest pains or palpitations.

When should I seek help for stress?

The issue with stress is that it exists as a problem that feeds on itself, and over time lowers your ability to cope. Because of this - the sooner you seek help for stress, the better. As stress is often viewed as simply a 'part of life', it can be difficult to know when outside support is needed.

As a rule, you should look to seek help if the following is happening:

  • Stress (and the effects of stress) dominate your life.

  • Stress is affecting your physical health.

  • You are using unhealthy coping methods to deal with stress.

  • You are experiencing angry outbursts that are affecting those around you.

Stress treatment

Recognizing the negative effect stress is having on your life, and understanding that this is not OK is an important first step. Once you have admitted to yourself that you need support, you can look into the various treatments available. Your first port of call may be your GP, who will be able to assess your stress levels and suggest appropriate treatments.

Counselling for stress

One recommendation commonly offered by doctors is counselling and psychotherapy. Talking with a professional about the difficulties you're experiencing can help you understand any underlying issues that may be causing your stress - for example, low self-esteem or relationship problems. Working with your counsellor, you will then be able to identify your personal stress triggers and discuss ways of coping with them.

If you are feeling stressed and want to talk, do not postpone, contact me.

By Counselling Directory

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