Many people talk about stress and it often isn’t clear what stress is really about. While stress involves events and our response to them, these are not the most important factors. Our thoughts about the situations in which we find ourselves are the critical factor.
When something happens to us, we automatically evaluate the situation mentally. We decide if it is threatening to us; how we need to deal with the situation, and what skills we can use.
If we decide that the demands of the situation outweigh the skills we have, then we label the situation as “stressful” and react with the classic “stress response”. If we decide that our coping skills outweigh the demands of the situation, then we don’t see it as “stressful”.
Everyone sees situations differently and each person has different coping skills. For this reason, no two people will respond exactly the same way to a given situation. Additionally, not all situations that are labeled “stressful” are negative.
Getting married, the birth of a child, being promoted or buying a new house; may not be perceived as threatening; however, we may feel that situations are “stressful” because we don’t feel fully prepared to deal with them.
Some situations in life are stress-provoking, but it is our thoughts about situations that determine whether they are a problem to us. How we perceive a stress-provoking event and how we react to it determines its impact on our health.
We may be motivated and invigorated by the events in our lives, or we may see some of them as “stressful” and respond in a manner that may have a negative effect on our physical, mental and social well-being.
If we always respond in a negative way our health and happiness may suffer. By understanding ourselves and our reactions to stress-provoking situations, we can learn to handle stress more effectively.
To understand stress, we need to look at the events that occur, our thoughts about them, and the way we respond. These “life events” can be stress-provoking and they are also known as “stressors”.
We also face many “daily hassles”; these are events that occur routinely; they also contribute to the levels of stress that we experience. Daily hassles include events such as being stuck in traffic, deadlines, and conflicts with family members or failing to deal with other underlying issues then any stressful situation provokes an overreaction but really it is just a tip of an iceberg of some unfinished business.
Between life events and day-to-day hassles, we are faced with many stress-provoking situations each day. Our attitude towards these situations determines our response. Coping effectively requires an understanding of the situations we perceive to be stressful.
We each have a particular way of responding to stress. Some of us have physical signs such as muscle tension, insomnia (difficulty sleeping), headaches, lack of appetite or over eating, etc. Others may have more emotional reactions, such as outbursts of crying or anger. Understanding your response to stressful situations is one of the first steps in developing your ability to lower your stress levels.
If we decide that a situation is stressful, we put into play the body’s “fight or flights” reaction, causing the release of adrenaline, a natural body chemical. This starts the first stage of the stress response. Knowing what you do when you are under stress is the first step to relieve tension of stress.
To cope with stress, you need to know when it is happening. These signs of stress can give you clues you can use to change your response to stress. The next time you feel that you are getting “stressed”, take time to check your body, your emotions and your behavior. If you recognize some of your usual signs of stress, then you have a clue that you need to do something to cope.
To achieve most effective coping skills, you need to understand what coping is all about. Coping is simply a way of short-circuiting the stress cycle: stopping the stress response. There is no single right way of coping with a given situation.
Each of us must figure out what works best for us. What works best will depend partially on your coping style. They are many coping styles; one needs to consult with a therapist for a better understanding of most appropriate style for you.
Bottom line is, regardless of the coping style or stages of stress one is experiencing; stress is real and has long lasting damaging effects on our health and well-being. Many people suffering from too much stress have symptoms of poor health; feelings of being tense or anxious, headaches, stomach complaints or symptoms of chronic pain.
In an attempt to cope with stress, some people drink too much alcohol, abuse drugs, blame others and may become physically violent, most often with family members or those close to them (domestic violence, and other form of physical and psychological abuse). Chronic stress may also contribute to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
They are many studies which are investigating the relationship between stress and cardiovascular disease such as heart disease and stroke. Becoming aware of your stressors and learning how to effectively deal with them will enable you to get on the right track for a healthier lifestyle.
Sometimes when we are feeling depressed, anxious, confused or unable to cope, talking to supportive friends or family members may be very helpful. But if that isn’t enough, you should consider seeking professional counseling.
While counseling cannot fix all the problems in your life, it can help you sort things out so that you feel more able to cope. A therapist can help you learn more about yourself so that you can use your own strengths to regain a feeling of control over your life.
Remember, it is how we think of, or react to life events that makes us feel over-stressed; not just the events themselves; and they are no bigger problems than who we are on a deeper level. It is also important to consult with a medical doctor for a thorough look at your health profile and a complete medical examination as your symptoms may be the result of an illness that may or may not be due to stress.
Ms Chantal Mudahogora is a Therapeutic Counsellor at Alzheimer Society of Hamilton and Halton Ontario, Canada