Stress describes a person’s physical or emotional response to the demands or pressures of daily life. Common causes of stress include work, money, relationships and illness. Significant events like the Covid-19 pandemic and the Christchurch earthquakes can also increase stress and anxiety.
Symptoms may include irritability, difficulty sleeping or relaxing, headaches, and muscle tension. Stress management approaches include lifestyle changes, relaxation and mindfulness, and counselling.
Causes of modern-day stress
Stress can be a positive thing – helping an individual to grow, develop, be stimulated, and take action. However, if stress exceeds a person’s ability to cope it can impact on their mental and physical health in a range of ways.
In the days of the caveman, stress often came in the form of physical threats that required individuals to react quickly and decisively. The body helped out by releasing a surge of ‘stress’ hormones (notably adrenaline and cortisol) to accelerate the heart rate, raise blood pressure, increase blood glucose (sugar) levels, and enhance the brain’s use of glucose. This stress response meant that the caveman was instantly ready to respond to danger.
Modern-day stressors are more likely to be psychological in origin and prolonged in nature (eg: work-related stress, financial worries, inter-personal relationships, chronic illnesses). But they can still set off your body’s stress response and, over time, can have a range of negative impacts on the body’s systems – brain, cardiovascular, immune, digestive, musculoskeletal, and so on.
People deal with stress in different ways and the ability to deal with stress changes throughout life. Those who have developed effective strategies to deal with day-to-day stressors are less likely to develop physical and psychological symptoms.
Signs, symptoms, and diagnosis
Stress that is not controlled and continues for a long period of time can cause a number of psychological and physical symptoms. Psychological symptoms of stress can include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of confidence
- Difficulty relaxing
- Difficulty with decision making
Physical symptoms of stress can include:
- Muscle tension and pain
- Low energy
- Nervous twitches or muscle spasms
- Changes in appetite
- Decreased sexual function
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
Long term, uncontrolled stress is associated with the development of a number of medical conditions. Primarily these occur as the result of biochemical imbalances that can weaken the immune system and over-stimulate the part of the nervous system that regulates heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.
Medical conditions that can occur as a result of chronic (long-term) stress include:
- Heart palpitations
- Gastrointestinal problems (eg: indigestion, heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome)
- Worsening skin conditions (eg: dermatitis/eczema)
- High blood pressure
- Recurrent colds and flu (influenza).
If you think that stress may be the cause of psychological or physical symptoms, talk with your doctor. They will discuss your medical history and circumstances, causes of stress that may be present in your life, and your ways of dealing with stress. Your doctor will also aim to rule out any other physical or mental illness that may be the cause of the symptoms.
Stress management and relief
There are many ways that you can help your mind and body adapt, and become more resilient to the negative impacts of life’s stresses.
Exercise, dietary changes, relaxation, stress management courses, counselling, and medications can all play a role in managing, relieving or coping with stress.
Exercise and Diet
Diet and exercise often play a central role in the relief of stress. It is important to eat a balanced healthy diet and avoid foods that may increase stress, eg: coffee, tea, and foods high in sugar.
Exercise helps to release built up tension and increases fitness. This, in turn, increases the body’s ability to deal with stress and helps to avoid the damage to our health that prolonged stress can cause. Exercise should be undertaken at least three times a week to be of most benefit. If you are not used to exercise, discuss this with a doctor prior to commencing an exercise programme.
Relaxation and mindfulness
Relaxation and mindfulness can be effective ways to help reduce tension associated with stress. There are many different techniques, eg: yoga, tai chi, meditation, and massage. Learning breathing techniques, which can be done anywhere and take only a few minutes, can help to reduce stress.
Some people find that simply taking “time out” during the day or after a stressful situation is sufficient to reduce stress levels. For others, more formalised relaxation techniques can be learned and used to keep stress in check. Some of these techniques are now being practiced in some New Zealand schools to equip young people to cope with the inevitable stress of modern life.
A range of relaxation and mindfulness apps for smartphones and other electronic devices can help people to better manage their stress on a daily basis.
Some stress management courses available in your community teach skills that enable the individual to recognise and deal with stressors, such as time management, goal setting, assertive communication, problem solving, managing change, and relaxation techniques.
Discussing concerns with an impartial person may assist with recognising stressors and deciding upon strategies to deal with them. This could be a professional therapist or a trusted family member, friend or colleague.
Often the process of discussing a concern is enough to reduce the stress it is causing. Getting help should not be seen as a sign of weakness. Knowing when to ask for help may be one of the changes necessary to deal with stress more appropriately.
In severe cases of stress, medication may be prescribed to treat some of the symptoms. Medication should only be considered as a short-term treatment and should be strictly monitored by the prescribing doctor.
Further information and support
For further information and support about dealing with stress consult your GP or practice nurse, or contact the following agencies:
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand
Website (National office): www.mentalhealth.org.nz
Freephone (24/7 Helpline): 0800 LIFELINE (0800 543 354)
Fee text: HELP (4357)
Mental Health Foundation (2013). Stress and how to handle it (PDF Pamphlet). Auckland: Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/assets/ResourceFinder/Stress-and-How-to-Handle-it.pdf
Mayo Clinic (2020). Stress management (Web Page). Rochester, MN: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/basics/stress-basics/hlv-20049495 [Accessed: 17/04/20]
NHS (2019). Stress (Web Page). Redditch: National Health Service (NHS)
England. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-stress/ [Accessed: 17/04/20]Stoppler, M., C. (2018). MedicineNet.com: Stress (Web Page). New York, NY: WebMD LLC. http://www.medicinenet.com/stress/article.htm [Accessed: 17/04/20]
Last Reviewed – June 2020