The Effects of Stress and How to Counteract It

Everyone goes through stress, but many of us are unable to deal with it. We end up psychologically scarred or physically debilitated. If you're currently trying to cope stress, here's what you need to know about its effects and how to counteract them.

What is stress?

According to the dictionary, stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. While correct, the definition missed out on the physical dimension of the term: stress is the body's natural reaction to a stressor that poses a threat or challenge to our well-being. When you feel danger, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and leads to hyper-arousal, otherwise known as the fight-or-flight response.

While stress is usually seen as negative, especially among those who are currently going through it, it's actually your body's way to protect and help you overcome an impending problem. When facing danger, for instance, stress helps you concentrate and stay alert, and give you strength you never knew you had. Stress also helps you with everyday concerns; it compels you to cram the night before an important test and helps you stay sharp when conducting a training seminar.

But as the saying goes, too much of anything is bad for you. This, more than anything, applies to stress. If you feel stressed too often for too long, your productivity, relationships, and health would suffer.

Common symptoms of stress

Stress can affect four major aspects of your life: behaviour, emotions, physical health, and cognition. Here are the common symptoms for each:

Behavioural symptoms

  • Procrastinating and disregarding responsibilities.
  • Eating too much or too little.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Use of cigarettes, alcohol, or even drugs.
  • Displaying nervous habits such as fidgeting and nail-biting.

Emotional symptoms

  • Gets easily agitated or irritated. 
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Depression, low self-esteem, a general feeling of unhappiness.
  • Loneliness and isolation.

Physical symptoms

  • Insomnia.
  • Loss of libido.
  • Frequent colds and infections.
  • Lethargy.
  • Headaches.
  • Diarrhoea, constipation, stomach ache, and nausea.

Cognitive symptoms

  • Frequent anxiety.
  • Being pessimistic.
  • Inability to focus.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Poor judgement.

Causes of stress

There are many things that can cause stress. You may feel some anxiety when you meet with your boss' boss or are given another assignment so close to your deadline. These stressors, however, are minor when compared to the causes of prolonged stress, which can be divided into three general types:

Personal issues
As the term suggests, personal issues can cause a great deal of stress. This would include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Relationship problems
    Having issues with your personal relationships (or lack of relationships) can cause a great deal of stress in many people.

  • Health problems
    These types of problems are especially more difficult for people with chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

  • Financial problems
    Whether your financial obligations increase or your ability to earn money decreases, financial problems can cause tremendous stress.

  • Family-related problems
    Families going through a rough patch, like perhaps a dealing with chronically ill family member or a rebelling teenager, is bound to result in stress.

  • Emotional problems
    Many people go through emotional problems like low self-esteem, depression, and guilt, all of which can cause long-term stress.

  • Major life changes
    Stress isn't always caused by personal problems, but by huge changes that that people go through. This can include moving to another place, getting married, divorce, or retirement.

Social and job-related issues
These kinds of problems stem from external circumstances, which may encompass the following:

  • Social conditions
    This refers to your current social situation, which may include dealing with discrimination (e.g. age, gender, race, or sexual orientation), your lifestyle (e.g. being poor), or anything similar.

  • Your environment
    Living in places that are polluted, noisy, overcrowded, or dangerous because of crime causes protracted stress.

  • Your occupation
    This isn't just about having a bad day at work; major occupational stressors like having a mean boss or being dissatisfied with your work can lead to chronic anxiety.

  • Unemployment
    On the other hand, the lack of employment cases long-term stress as well, especially for people who are chronically unemployed.

Post-traumatic stress
This refers to a condition of lasting emotional and mental stress caused by serious injury or a severely traumatic event like war, a natural calamity, or sexual abuse. Such events can lead to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress reaction (otherwise known as mental shock or simply shock).

Consequences of prolonged stress

A little bit of stress shouldn't be a problem. In fact, it helps the body deal with problems and threats. Prolonged exposure to stress, however, will take a toll on the body and mind, and can lead to a number of health problems including the following:

  • Cardiovascular conditions like hypertension, heart disease, and arrhythmia. Chronic stress can even lead to stroke and heart attacks.

  • Mental health problems such as depression and personality disorders.

  • Sexual dysfunction like premature ejaculation and impotence for men, and loss of libido in both genders.

  • Hair and skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, acne, and hair loss.

  • Gastrointestinal conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (aka acid reflux), and gastritis.

How to deal with stress

Here are several ways you can cope with stress:

Method #1: Make changes to avoid the stress
If you can't avoid the specific source of your stress, then find ways to make changes. This usually means you'll have to change how you work, function, and/or communicate.

Method #2: Avoid unnecessary stressors
While not all stressors can be avoided, you can eliminate several of them. You can avoid people that stress you out, steer clear of topics that cause arguments, and practice how to say no when it's necessary.

Method #3: Adjust to the stressors
Sometimes, making changes isn't enough to avoid or eliminate the stress; you can instead make personal adjustments. For instance, you can try to learn to let go and be agreeable with "good enough", especially when there's no need for a task to be be perfect.

Method #4: Accept the situation
There are some causes of stress that are beyond your control. Things like the weather, economic difficulties, and aging are unavoidable. Rather than agonising over them, it's better to accept the situation.

Method #5: Make time for relaxation and fun
Dealing with stress isn't just about making changes, adjusting, or accepting things. You also need to take the time to relax and have fun so that you're ready for stressors when you inevitably encounter them.

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