Stress has been around forever. But we have come to know about the depth and breadth of its impact fairly recently, thanks to advances in psychology, neurosciences, medicine and mental health. Research around the world is throwing up new information and data to help us understand stress and the various ways in which it affects our health, wellbeing and daily life, including mood, diet, digestion and sleep. However, these are just a handful of troubles that stress causes. With more data coming in, experts are realizing that stress has a wide-ranging impact on us. There are ways that stress might be affecting you without you even realizing it, say experts.
Stress affects you in more ways than you realize
Stress impacts us at multiple levels and manifests itself in various symptoms:
Physical symptoms: Sleep disturbances, fatigue, indigestion, headaches, aches and pains, dizziness, sweating and trembling, tingling hands and feet, shortness of breath, palpitations, low immunity, infections, and unexplained aches and pains.
Mental symptoms: Lack of concentration, memory lapses, difficulty in decision-making, confusion and panic attacks.
Behavioural symptoms: Restlessness, fidgeting, nail-biting, appetite changes, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, increased alcohol and recreational drug abuse, increased smoking.
Emotional symptoms: Bouts of depression, impatience, fits of rage, breaking down and crying easily.
Good vs bad stress, chronic vs acute stress
To put it simply, stress is a natural physiological response of the body when faced with challenges, demands, or perceived threats, explains Dr Vaibhav Chaturvedi, consultant (psychiatry), Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Indore.
When a person perceives that the demands made on them exceed the personal and social resources they are able to mobilize, the person experiences stress, explains Dr Vinayak Agrawal, director and head of clinical cardiology and cardiac imaging at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute (FMRI) in Gurugram.
As the definitions suggest, there is no way one can escape stress. Every situation in our lives can, potentially, be a stressful one. For example, a happy occasion like a wedding can be extremely stressful for the people planning and executing it. What to wear and how to style it, a seemingly joyous and pleasant memory in most wedding photographs, could actually be a stressful occasion for many a couples. In the 1990s, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared stress a health epidemic of the 21st century.
Stress can be good (eustress), neutral (neustress) or bad (distress). Eustress is productive and helps us in situations where we need to act quickly. “Now, stress has clearly become a way of life. It is indeed a negative experience but it is not an inevitable consequence of an event. It is the bad stress we need to worry about. When bad stress is of high intensity but for a short duration, it is called acute stress. When it is low intensity stress that lasts for a prolonged period of time, it is chronic stress. It is this chronic stress that seems to be the cause of most problems, including disease and illness,” says FMRI's Dr Agrawal.
Stress can be triggered by multiple factors, both internal and external. Major life changes, challenging workplace dynamics, strained interpersonal relationships, conflicts at home, communication difficulties and financial troubles are some of the typical external factors that can cause us stress. Of late, social media is also reported to be a major cause of stress and other mental health problems. Also, it is important to bear in mind that even children can be affected by stress and one of the most common external causes of stress among children is academic pressure, warns Dr Chaturvedi. Internal factors include one’s personality, mindset, perception, illness and health conditions. “Worrying all the time, having a pessimistic outlook, holding unrealistic expectations and rigid thinking patterns can all contribute to internal stress,” he adds.
How stress affects you
From headaches to restlessness, there are many ways stress manifests itself. Often we don’t even know that the root cause of many health disorders is stress. Some of the common physical symptoms of stress include headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. Stress can also play havoc with our emotions and mind. “Stress can lead to feelings of anxiety and restlessness. You can feel overwhelmed, lose focus, get demotivated and withdraw socially. You may become more irritable or feel sad. Stress can also have an effect on eating habits or can even increase one’s reliance on addictive substances like alcohol or tobacco,” says Dr Chaturvedi. Furthermore, symptoms like overeating or neglecting proper nutrition could compound health problems such as weight issues and malnutrition.
Chronic stress is the most dangerous as it can have an insidious effect on health. Repeated tension in muscles can evolve into chronic pain issues, like frequent headaches or backaches. Stress can lead to issues with digestion and problems ranging from stomach cramps to irregular bowel movements. Over time, prolonged stress can lead to increase in the blood pressure and can put you at higher risk for heart disease. Chronic stress also weakens the body’s immune system, leaving you more susceptible to infections and it can also aggravate pre-existing conditions like acne or psoriasis.
The trouble with recognizing chronic stress is that it may not peak quickly and continues for days, warns Ruchi Sharma, a clinical psychologist at HCMCT Manipal Hospital in Dwarka. “There may not be any evident stressor. But still an individual may feel restless and irritable. Changes in bio-drives, gastric symptoms, mood swings can happen over time and the individual may keep attributing these changes to the external environment. Others may notice these changes and ask about them, yet many people continue to be in denial about their symptoms,” she added.
Ways to be stress free
A balanced lifestyle, with regular adequate sleep, a nutritious diet, and physical activity are key to beat stress. “Stress management is all about leading a balanced life. Invest in yourself. Avoid over-working or even too much partying or recreation. Acceptance is the key. Accept your personal strengths and weaknesses to avoid competing or comparing,” suggested Dr Agrawal.
Life skills such as problem-solving, time management and prioritizing tasks for better output, and overcoming procrastination are also essential in your war on stress. Learning to navigate adverse situations is crucial. Learning to live in gratitude and staying optimistic also helps. “Self-awareness plays a key role in managing stress. It helps us in understanding and recognizing the signs and triggers of stress. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or even simple activities like reading a book or taking walks, can help in alleviating stress.
Also read: How running can help you cope with stress at work
Communication helps and discussing your feelings and concerns with trusted friends, family, or professionals can give both insight and relief,” adds Dr Chaturvedi.
Exercise is also a great way to manage stress. “Engaging in physical activities such as exercise and sports leads to increased endorphin levels, which are mood enhancers. Such physical activities promote better sleep and reduce muscle tension, contributing to overall stress reduction. Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing, can create a sense of calm, improve focus, and break the cycle of stressful thoughts by encouraging being in the moment,” says Spoorthi S, a fitness instructor.
12 ways to beat stress
1. Regular exercise can help you sweat the stress out of your body.
2. Meditation and breathing exercises can help with focus and staying calm.
3. Balanced and nutritious diet are key to wellbeing. Reduce your caffeine intake.
4. Getting good quality and sufficient sleep is vital.
5. Pick an activity you enjoy and do it regularly as a way to relax and de-stress.
6. “Me-time” is not selfish. Make some every day, for you to wind down.
7. Take breaks between tasks and focus on one thing at a time.
8. Seek timely treatment, especially if there is any history of mental health issues in your family.
9. Avoid regular use of substances that can cause addiction and withdrawal symptoms.
10. Be mindful of the signs of stress your body gives you, such as sudden headaches, stomach cramps, etc.
11. Improve personal relationships, seek counselling if needed.
12. Reduce screen time and increase interactions with family and friends.