What it is
Stress occurs when your body responds as though you are in danger. It produces hormones, such as adrenaline, that speed up your heart, make you breathe faster, and give you a burst of energy. This is called the fight-or-flight stress response.
Stress can arise for a variety of reasons. It can be brought about by a traumatic accident, death, or emergency situation. Stress can also be a side effect of a serious illness or disease.
There is also stress associated with daily life, the workplace, and family responsibilities. It's hard to stay calm and relaxed in our hectic lives.
Any change in our lives can be stressful?even some of the happiest ones like having a baby or taking a new job. Here are some of life's most stressful events as outlined in the still-in-use Holmes and Rahe Scale of Life Events (1967).
- death of a spouse
- marital separation
- spending time in jail
- death of a close family member
- personal illness or injury
Stress can take on many different forms, and can contribute to symptoms of illness. Common symptoms include:
- Sleep disorders
- Difficulty concentrating
- Upset stomach
- Job dissatisfaction
- Low morale
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a debilitating condition that can occur after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that can trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults such as rape or mugging, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
Many people with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects that remind them of the trauma. Anniversaries of the event can also trigger symptoms. People with PTSD also can have emotional numbness, sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, irritability, or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt (called survivor guilt) are also common, particularly if others did not survive the traumatic event.
Most people who are exposed to a traumatic, stressful event have some symptoms of PTSD in the days and weeks following the event, but the symptoms generally disappear. But about 8% of men and 20% of women go on to develop PTSD, and roughly 30% of these people develop a chronic, or long-lasting, form that persists throughout their lives.
Effects of stress on your health
Research is starting to show the serious effects of both short and long-term stress on our bodies. Stress jacks up your body's production of cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that lower immune response so you're more likely to come down with a cold or the flu when faced with stressful situations like final exams or relationship problems. Stress-induced anxiety also can inhibit natural killer-cell activity. If practiced regularly, any of the well-known relaxation techniques—from aerobic exercise and progressive muscle relaxation to meditation, prayer and chanting—help block release of stress hormones and increase immune function.
Stress can also worsen existing health problems, possibly playing a part in:
- trouble sleeping
- lack of energy
- lack of concentration
- eating too much or not at all
- higher risk of asthma and arthritis flare-ups
- stomach cramping
- stomach bloating
- skin problems, like hives
- weight gain or loss
- heart problems
- high blood pressure
- irritable bowel syndrome
- neck and/or back pain
- less sexual desire
- difficulty getting pregnant
Women and stress
We all deal with stressful things like traffic, arguments with spouses, and job problems. Some researchers think that women handle stress in a unique way--tending and befriending.
- Tend : women protect and care for their children
- Befriend : women seek out and receive social support
During stress, women tend to care for their children and find support from their female friends. Women's bodies make chemicals that are believed to promote these responses. One of these chemicals is oxytocin, which has a calming effect during stress. This is the same chemical released during childbirth and found at higher levels in breastfeeding mothers, who are believed to be calmer and more social than women who don't breastfeed. Women also have the hormone estrogen, which boosts the effects of oxytocin. Men, however, have high levels of testosterone during stress, which blocks the calming effects of oxytocin and causes hostility, withdrawal, and anger.
What you can do to protect yourself
Don't let stress make you sick. Often we aren't even aware of our stress levels. Listen to your body, so that you know when stress is affecting your health. Here are ways to help you handle your stress:
- Relax. It's important to unwind. Each person has her own way to relax. Some ways include deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and massage therapy. If you can't do these things, take a few minutes to sit, listen to soothing music, or read a book. To try deep breathing:
- Lie down or sit in a chair.
- Rest your hands on your stomach.
- Slowly count to four and inhale through your nose. Feel your stomach rise. Hold it for a second.
- Slowly count to four while you exhale through your mouth. To control how fast you exhale, purse your lips like you're going to whistle. Your stomach will slowly fall.
- Repeat five to 10 times.
- Make time for yourself. It's important to care for yourself. Think of this as an order from your doctor, so you don't feel guilty! No matter how busy you are, you can try to set aside at least 15 minutes each day in your schedule to do something for yourself, like taking a bubble bath, going for a walk, or calling a friend.
- Sleep. Sleeping is a great way to help both your body and mind. Your stress could get worse if you don't get enough sleep. You also can't fight off sickness as well when you sleep poorly. With enough sleep, you can tackle your problems better and lower your risk for illness. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
- Eat right. Try to fuel up with fruits, vegetables, and proteins. Good sources of protein can be peanut butter, chicken, or tuna salad. Eat whole-grains, such as wheat breads and wheat crackers. Don't be fooled by the jolt you get from caffeine or sugar. Your energy will wear off.
- Get moving. Believe it or not, getting physical activity not only helps relieve your tense muscles, but helps your mood, too. Your body manufactures certain chemicals, called endorphins, before and after you work out. They relieve stress and improve your mood.
- Talk to friends. Talk to your friends to help you work through your stress. Friends are good listeners. Finding someone who will let you talk freely about your problems and feelings without judging you does a world of good. It also helps to hear a different point of view. Friends will remind you that you're not alone.
- Get help from a professional if you need it. A therapist can help you work through stress and find better ways to deal with problems. For more serious stress related disorders, like PTSD, therapy can be helpful. There also are medications that can help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety and help promote sleep.
- Compromise. Sometimes, it's not always worth the stress to argue. Give in once in awhile.
- Write down your thoughts. Have you ever typed an email to a friend about your lousy day and felt better afterward? Why not grab a pen and paper and write down what's going on in your life. Keeping a journal can be a great way to get things off your chest and work through issues. Later, you can go back and read through your journal and see how much progress you've made.
- Help others. Helping someone else can help you. Help your neighbor, or volunteer in your community.
- Get a hobby. Find something you enjoy. Make sure to give yourself time to explore your interests.
- Set limits. When it comes to things like work and family, figure out what you can really do. There are only so many hours in the day. Set limits with yourself and others. Don't be afraid to say NO to requests for your time and energy.
- Plan your time. Think ahead about how you're going to spend your time. Write a to-do list. Figure out what's most important to do.
- Don't deal with stress in unhealthy ways. This includes drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, smoking, or overeating.
Adapted in part from The National Women's Health Information Center (www.womenshealth.gov)