Stress: A leading topic in conversations worldwide

By Sande E. Oundo

Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. It is a psychological pain and a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives. Everyone experiences stress to some degree. How we respond to stress however makes a big difference to our overall well-being.

Small amounts of stress are beneficial, as they can improve our performance, motivation, and reaction to the environment. That stress is called eustress or good stress which is when stress is perceived positively however, when stress is perceived negatively it becomes distress or bad stress.

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Excessive and chronic stress, however, can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, it can also worsen pre-existing conditions like cancers.

Ironically, lack of stress is not a good thing simply because stress is important for our growth and builds resilience which without we become weak and hopeless. The less external stress the more internal stress, which is why people with a high socioeconomic status like the West have higher rates of suicides than in Africa.

Stress can be external and thus related to the environment like a major life event like divorce, war, or loss of a job, to day-to-day stressors i.e. finances, illness, or abuse by your boss but may also be caused by internal perceptions that cause an individual to experience anxiety or other negative emotions surrounding a situation, such as pressure, discomfort, etc., which they then deem stressful.

The stress response of the body has three stages according to the endocrinologist Hans Selye:

The alarm reaction: When the stressor is first presented. Here the body begins to gather resources to deal with the stressor by activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (responsible for threat response) and sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response of the body) resulting in the release of hormones cortisol, adrenaline (epinephrine), and norepinephrine into the bloodstream to adjust bodily processes. These hormonal adjustments increase energy levels via glucose release, increase muscle tension, reduce sensitivity to pain, slow down the digestive system, and cause a rise in blood pressure (hypertension).

The stage of resistance: The body builds up resistance throughout the stage of resistance, either until the body’s resources are depleted, leading to the exhaustion phase, or until the stressful stimulus is removed. As the body uses up more and more of its resources, it becomes increasingly tired and susceptible to illness. At this stage psychosomatic disorders first begin to appear like stomach pain, diarrhoea, fever, headache, sleeplessness, and more physical manifestations of stress including susceptibility to infections like flu due to cortisol weakening the immunity of the body.

Finally, the stage of exhaustion is where the body is completely drained of the hormones and resources it depends on to manage the stressor. The person now begins to exhibit behaviours such as anxiety, irritability, avoidance of responsibilities and relationships, self-destructive behaviour, and poor judgment like an addiction. Someone experiencing these symptoms has a much greater chance of lashing out, damaging relationships, or avoiding social interaction at all.

According to the most credible personality measurement, the Big 5 personality test, people with high neuroticism are more susceptible to stress, especially chronic stress, than others. This could be because their amygdala, which is part of the brain responsible for fear, is more active and hence always on the lookout for any stressors or causes of stress.

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As we mentioned, stress by its nature is neither good nor bad, it’s just the way we look at it. Often we can decide whether to look at stress as a threat to avoid or a challenge for us to defeat. The stress response of the body is different from the cause of it and often worsens the situation, so you need to keep that in mind. That is easier said than done, henceforth there are some things one can do to manage stress in the moment.

  1. Set a fitness routine by choosing a physical activity that suits you. This will rejuvenate your body and mind.
  2. Eat Healthy foods. Food is an excellent stress reliever with a positive effect on a person’s mental state.
  3. Get adequate sleep. Sleep is very vital in resetting the mind.
  4. Exercising by even walking around rather than sitting releases energy which is going to become toxic.
  5. Meditating on moments helps you to look at thoughts and not be swallowed by them.
  6. Having a good support system both as family and friends.
  7. Adopting positive recreational activities like sports and hobbies to occupy you and thus manage stress.
  8. Living a purposeful life, complemented with prayers, reminders, and gratitude. 
  9. Journaling down your thoughts every day helps to decompress thoughts and clear them. 
  10. Building better-coping mechanisms like humor, sublimation (using stress for good productivity), and anticipation of the possible worst outcomes.

In conclusion, stress is a physical response of the body to a perceived threat or any adverse situation. It can cause grave damage to an individual’s health and well-being. Therefore, one has to shift focus to the present instead of the past or something that causes stress. We have to accept there are stressors around us so our aim should be to accept what is beyond our control and focus on pleasant things to be able to live a meaningful, productive and long life.

Sande Elison Oundo, is the President of Vigilant Living, A counselling and coaching company. Attend our life-changing workshops by visiting http://vigilantliving.org

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