Stress and Ways to Combat It

In this urban paradise of today, our personal identity has become closely linked to our achievements, status and wealth. The world has become a competitive arena, be it at home, or work or in society. The perpetual struggle to keep abreast of the times generates stress which brings with it, associated problems. Even children are under stress when parents push them too hard to perform well in studies and in extra-curricular activities. They are not allowed any unstructured playtime.

Stress is not inherently bad. A stress-free life would make one lazy, lackadaisical and uninteresting. If there is no irritating grain of sand within an oyster there would be no pearl. If coal is not subjected to extreme heat there would be no diamond. However, there is a limit to what a human being can endure. Stress overload can damage the mind and the body. Inability to cope with difficult situations creates anxiety and tension which interferes with normal functions.

Stressors come in different guises.

• Personal Ambition: The unbridled desire to stay ahead in the rat race, to meet dead lines or to achieve great heights, can keep a person on tenter hooks. Occupational stress can be emotionally draining especially when there is no appreciation or support from employers, and no scope for promotion.

• Personal Possessions: The desire for acquisition of gadgets or material things at any cost.

• Physiology: There are phases in life when stress if felt more acutely as in adolescence, menopause, motherhood, old age, or illness. Women are hormonally prone to excessive anxiety and stress premenstrually, postnatally or during menopause.

• Personality: Two types of personality have been described. People who belong to Type A are ambitious, aggressive, and impatient. They must win at all costs. They are therefore more prone to stress and its related health problems. Those belonging to Type B are less competitive, laid back and wholly satisfied with who and what they are. Stress is therefore not such a great problem in their lives.

• Appraisal of a situation: When there is an imbalance between demands and coping skills, stress increases. This is often seen in mothers who have the responsibility of running a home, caring for children and holding down a busy job. Inability to manage their time efficiently leads to stress, and in the long run incapacitates them.

Symptoms of Stress:

Inability to cope with situations either at work or at home or in society, creates anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, headaches, rapid pulse or panic attacks, which prevent a person from functioning to full capacity. This is a signal that all is not well. Failure to recognize and remedy the cause of anxiety will lead to loss of emotional control. The person becomes angry, irritable and succumbs to mood swings. Depression follows. Changes in personality become obvious. The person is disenchanted with life, and his priorities change. Friends become foes and marital relations flounder.
Physically, blood pressure rises and diabetes may set in. He becomes prone to obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome and heart attacks.

Deep depression may even lead to suicidal tendencies.

Physiological Changes in Stress:

When the brain encounters a stressful situation it triggers the endocrine glands. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released into the blood stream. The sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, which causes a rise in blood pressure, increased heart rate, rapid breathing and release of glucose into the blood stream. In a normal situation, the parasympathetic nervous system will act at a subconscious level, to counteract the excesses of the sympathetic system. The hormones and chemicals are quickly metabolised.

However, prolonged stress upsets this response and cripples functions of the body. Blood pressure remains high, heart rate is rapid, headaches, insomnia and mood changes occur. Prolonged stress is also related to obesity. A neuropeptide Y is released into the blood stream, which unlocks the Y receptors in fat cells and makes them swell and multiply. Fat accumulation occurs especially in the abdominal area.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is often seen in people under prolonged stress. Sexual inadequacy is also known to occur.

Stress busters to combat Stress:

There is no way to totally eliminate stress from our lives. But one can certainly change the way we perceive stress and react to it. In a society of “inextinguishable discontent” the power of positive thinking is a sure way to combat stress.

• Be in control of yourself. Emerson urged the practice of ‘serenity’, and Sir William Osler talked of ‘equanimity,’ which is to be perfectly poised, balanced, inwardly controlled, and have a sense of humour.

• Identify and enumerate your strengths. Then locate the cause of your stress and apply your strengths to overcome the problem. Stress situations should be taken as a challenge. Set your priorities right and strike at the root of the problem. It may be a relationship problem or greed for wealth or the compulsion of keeping up with the Joneses, or debt.

• Set yourself achievable targets and work towards those goals. Don’t be overanxious about the outcome. If there is a work overload, then get assistance to do the job. Learn to delegate responsibility. Don’t take up more work than you can manage. Unload all non-essentials.

• Exercise is a good anti-depressant. A brisk walk for 30 -45 minutes will help you de-stress. Yoga is a good way to drive away stress.

• Diet: Stress makes one over eat. With cortisol and insulin in the blood stream appetite increases and fat accumulates. The overload on the liver makes it resistant to insulin. As a result, the pancreas secretes more insulin and more food is consumed. It is good to avoid saturated fatty acids, excessive salt and sugar and foods that increase cholesterol. Fish and walnuts contain Omega 3 fatty acids which are good for brain activity. Dark chocolate has its advantages. Timely meal breaks will help. Alcohol, smoking and caffeine should be limited or avoided if possible.

• Make time for yourself. Do what you enjoy doing after working hours. Relax, read, listen to music. Learn relaxation techniques.

• Meditation and prayer. Prayer helps us to connect with God who is the source of strength and wisdom. Worry is debilitating. Marcus Aurelius counseled, “Vex not thy spirit at the course of things. They heed not thy vexations.”

• Sleep: The body requires 6-8 hours of sleep to recoup from the daily stresses of life.

• Make good friends with whom you can talk about your problems. Supportive friends are a treasure.

• Take an annual holiday and remove yourself from the scene of stress.

The best stress buster prescribed by Dr. Smiley Branton is to “Practise easing your way along. Don’t get het up or in a dither. Do your best, take it as it comes. You can handle anything if you just think you can”.

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