Stress plays a large part in all our lives. Many people are finding it helpful to find ways of combating the problem before it affects their health and welfare.
Recognising stress should be easy. It seems that everywhere you look people are reading and talking about the subject. Sometimes it seems that you are out of step with everyone else if you are not ‘stressed’ and rushing around!
Feeling stressed before an exam or an interview is natural. Feeling stressed before a wedding, moving house or another event is natural. Feeling stressed during illness, after bereavement or about any other factor that affects your life is also natural. In fact, reacting to any change – good or bad – is natural. If we were unable to react and produce the energy and alertness that is required to deal with change, we would be unable to handle many of the challenges of life.
Immediate Stress Response
The body is uniquely designed to react to danger or challenge. When it detects the need for ‘flight-or-fight’ it produces a cocktail of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Muscles tense, heart rate increases and blood is diverted from the digestive and other organs ready for action. After the event, the body and mind relaxes and harmony is restored.
This immediate stress response has no long term affect on health.
Long Term Stress Response
If the body is placed under long term stress – either perceived or real – there are risks of damage to the body. Stress may result from a heavy work load, illness, family problems or other demands. Worry, financial problems, divorce, bereavement and many other factors may all play on the mind and be difficult to resolve.
Research has shown that many workers are experiencing long term stress causing health problems, absenteeism and losses in productivity. Doctors are dealing with an increased number of patients suffering from stress and insomnia.
Symptoms of Stress
We grow up with stress and are surrounded by it every day. Children are being tested at earlier ages and a competitive lifestyle means that many people are pushing themselves to the limit. For some this has no damaging effect but for others the symptoms may be slow to develop and easily mistaken.
People vary in their response to stress and the symptoms differ between individuals. Symptoms may be physical or psychological or a combination of both.
Physical symptoms include:
- Joint and Muscle Pain
- Worsening of other conditions including Gastrointestinal Disorders, Angina, Hypertension, Cancer, Diabetes
Psychological symptoms include:
- Sleep Disorders
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Loss of Appetite
Stress and Sleep
Sleep is affected by a number of the symptoms related to stress. In the short term the body can cope with stress and the occasional sleepless night. Longer periods will affect the body and mind.
Many people try to find ways of coping with stress that will, in the long term, cause additional damage to their health. Alcohol, sleeping pills, limiting sleep and working longer may all distract from the problem but will only increase the possibility of damage to the body and affect work and relationships.
Stress and Personality
Stress affects everyone at some time. None of us are immune to life events. Some people manage to handle stress better than others. This may be due to personality or by developing strategies that help them cope with life’s stresses.
People with what is commonly known as type A behaviour, exhibit a number of personality characteristics that may make them more susceptible to stress. They may appear to be trying to fit more and more into each day, be continually striving for achievement and seem irritable and angry.
Research has shown a connection with this type of personality and coronary heart disease, ulcers and other health problems.
Personality and Sleep
There is little research about the influence of personality on sleep. Individuals suffering from stress are likely to find sleep difficult as adrenaline and cortisol will interfere with the body’s ability to ‘switch off’ and relax.
Other personality types may appear to be outwardly unaffected by stress. They may hide their problems and find difficulty expressing emotions and concerns. The stress may be taken ‘inward’, sleep and health suffering as a result.
Dealing With Stress and Improving Sleep
Sometimes it is possible to identify the stressor (whatever is causing the stress) and make changes. Often this is not possible as the event may have passed, yet the stress remains. It might even be a number of events, or just the way you live your life.
If it is not possible to make changes, there are a number of ways to strengthen the body’s ability to deal with stress.
Stress is dealt with on an emotional and physical level. By finding ways to help the body and mind it is possible to build up resistance to some of the debilitating and distressing reactions to stress.
Mind Body and Stress
Counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy help identify the reasons for the stress and create strategies that make the body and mind better able to cope. Doctors are increasingly supporting this approach as an effective alternative to sleeping pills and tranquillisers.
By improving diet and taking regular exercise the body builds up strength and immunity and is better able to cope with the physical affects of stress. Exercise is an excellent way to reduce tension.
Coffee, alcohol and caffeinated drinks should be avoided. Alcohol should be limited and is best avoided in the hours before bedtime. Stress can weaken parts of the body including the adrenal glands. Research has shown that magnesium supplements may be helpful in reducing the physical response to stress.
There are a number of homeopathic and herbal remedies that are reputed to be helpful for sufferers of stress. Homeopathic and herbal remedies are prescribed in accordance with the presenting symptoms and the nature of the individual. They are increasingly used to help ease the symptoms related to stress such as anxiety, fatigue and depression.
Breathing and Stress
Part of the stress response is to breathe rapidly using the upper part of the lungs. This creates feelings of panic and anxiety. Learning how to breathe slowly and using the lungs properly creates a feeling of calm and relaxation. By learning breathing techniques or Yoga the symptoms of stress can be reduced.
By exploring ways to strengthen the body and mind it is possible to protect ourselves from some of the health risks. Sleep is an important part of our health needs and by finding ways to relax and get a good night’s sleep we are better able to survive the challenges of the day.