What is stress?
Stress is the body’s physical, mental or emotional response to some form of change. It’s a normal part of life, and the human body is designed to experience and react to stress.
Without some level of stress humans would not thrive or succeed. From a biological perspective stress is an alarm response in the body and it triggers the recruitment of specific hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, that make us more alert and ready to respond to the challenge at hand.
In most instances this response helps individuals to cope with life’s challenges and in that sense stress can be positive – keeping us alert, motivated, learning and ready to avoid danger. But, it can also be negative in its effect when we face intense and continuous stress which overwhelms the adaptive response. The signs of being under this sort of stress include emotional and also physical symptoms – from chronic headaches to backache, fatigue, abdominal pain, increases in blood pressure and heart rate and more. Chronic stress also lowers our self-control and predisposes us to
unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, poor diet and excessive drinking. Beyond a certain point, stress can also trigger the onset of serious mental health problems. It is estimated that three out of four visits to doctors are due to stress-related problems.
We can feel stress in relation to the everyday challenges of heavy traffic or an inbox filled with urgent emails. We also feel stress in the face of circumstances such as financial hardship or job loss, divorce, and death in the family. Then, significant social issues like political conflicts, violence in our community, poverty and inequality have a cumulative effect that stresses an entire society or nation and can even affect people who have not directly been affected by the violence or poverty.
The amount of stress a person experiences is highly individual and depends on the form of stress, how the person’s mind assesses the level of threat and that person’s innate coping abilities.
What is resilience and what makes you resilient?
In brief, resilience is your ability to bounce back from pain, hardship, failure and stress.
The American Psychological Association defines individual-level resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy or threats. The World Health Organization adds that resilience also includes coping with significant stress caused by problematic and toxic relationships in the family or at the workplace and the capacity to bounce back from difficult experiences.
What are the effects of stress?
We cannot always avoid stressful situations and, in fact, some forms of stress are good for us. Eustress is an adaptive and healthy experience of stress that may encourage personal growth, productivity and motivation.
However, negative, unhealthy stress can have a harmful effect on us and increase our risk of:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Cognitive problems
- Mental health challenges (including depression and anxiety)
Forms of stress
Negative forms of stress include:
- Financial difficulties
- Abusive relationships
- Unhealthy family dynamics
- Poor health
There are also many less evident stressors, the effects of which build over time. These include frequently being stuck in traffic, fast-paced work, ever-increasing work-life demands and deadlines and the strain of difficult relationships.
Early warning signs of the effects of unhealthy stress on a person may include:
- Physical signs such as frequent or recurring infections, headaches, back pain and palpitations
- Emotional signs such as irritability, lack of motivation and feeling anger
- A turn towards negative dynamics in our relationships with others
How can you build your resilience and increase your tolerance to stress?
If you cannot always prevent life’s negative stressors and you cannot avoid the experience of stress, how do you take care of your wellbeing? By being more resilient!
Building and practising resilience will ease the effects of stress and improve your overall sense of wellbeing. Resilience is not always an automatic response to stress. You need to be proactive and intentional about developing your capacity for resilience to stress. Building resilience takes practice, just like building and developing any muscle’s strength and stamina. Be patient and remember that slow and steady change may help to ease life’s challenges in a sustainable way. Be intentional, be mindful, be proactive and ask for help in practising your resilience. How?
Start with small, manageable efforts towards changing your approach to the stressors in your life. Every person is unique. We face dynamic situations and have our own needs and preferences. Find the tools that you can integrate into your life to build resilience:
- Make a plan to deal with the issue or issues causing you to feel stressed, be they financial or related to the relationships in your life
- Know yourself – know your personal warning signs and triggers for stress.
- Practise mindfulness and relaxation techniques to manage the effects of stress and increase your overall sense of wellbeing. These include:
- Deep breathing
- Guided imagery
- Exercise regularly
- Eat healthily
- Develop good sleeping habits and ensure your sleep quality and quantity are optimal
- Find a sense of purpose and meaning. Doing so gives context and hope, and also reflects that your life is about far more than the current situation you are facing.
- Set meaningful goals
- Ask for help. There is much support available when you reach out to:
- Your doctor, therapist or psychiatrist
- Your employee wellness programme
- Your HR manager
- Be organised and plan, to assist you to meet your deadlines.
- Practise gratitude. This may improve your overall wellbeing, and help to relieve the effects of stress. You have control over how you engage with and manage your stressors.
- Learn and grow from your mistakes. Failing mindfully can be a powerful tool in your personal growth, and in building your ability to bounce back.
Finally, there is compelling evidence that social relationships are critical for promoting well-being and for acting as a buffer against stress. The role of social support comes up as key in many stories about people who have survived stressors like trauma, and more. The value of family, friends, community and other meaningful relationships may be critical components in helping to build our resilience.
Visit the Vitality at Home page (https://www.discovery.co.za/vitality/vitality-at-home-exercise-nutrition-health) for more ideas on how to stay healthy and rewarded at home.
Keep up to date with the latest Vitality news on Facebook (Discovery Vitality) and Twitter (@Vitality_SA).
Stay home. Stay healthy. Stay rewarded.