Stress: What it is, and How to recognize it

Just about everyone has felt it at some point. The quickening of your breath, the aches in your shoulders, even the beating of your heart gets faster. We hear about stress all the time, but do you really know what it is, and how it can manifest in your life? Here are a few surefire ways to recognize it, and the effect that it is having on you and your body.

Generally speaking, stress is something in a situation, action or thought that can make you feel frustrated, angry or anxious. Specifically what may cause stress to your neighbor or brother probably won’t be as stressful for you and vice versa. Everyone has different stress triggers.

Of course, this definition can be a bit useless because it is so broad. In most cases, a better way to handle stress is to recognize what symptoms it has, or how it manifests in your daily life. One of the most debilitating symptoms is that of anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension and fear, especially when the source of such feelings cannot be easily ascertained. This not knowing often adds to the feeling, making it worse than before.

Other symptoms associated with stress often depend on the situation, and the person suffering from undue stress. For example, one person may feel tension in their shoulders, while another will feel nauseous. If faced with a stressful situation, your neighbor might break out in a sweat, while your mouth feels dry as a desert. Often a prolonged exposure to stress will lead to higher blood pressure and other health problems as well. The physical symptoms vary widely, and it can be hard to recognize them for what they are. In most cases however, if the stress is removed, the symptoms will dissipate soon after.

In addition to the mental symptoms that can signify a rise in stress levels, there are some mental ones that should be considered. First, people under high levels of stress find it difficult to concentrate. Thoughts might become jumbled, or incomplete. Add to that the frustration and anger normally felt under times of stress, it can be easily seen why undue stress has become such a problem in today’s society.

It should be noted, however, that not all stress is bad. In truth, stress, in small quantities can be beneficial. A small amount of stress allows us to test our potential limits, to grow and change to meet new challenges. One way to think of stress is like a weight on an exercise machine, offering resistance to our muscles. Too much stress (or weight) and the muscles or ourselves are damaged. But if there is no resistance, over time we lose our strength, both physically and mentally.

If you feel that you might be experiencing undue stress, take a quick inventory of your body and mind. Are there any aches or pains that can’t be explained away through previous injuries? Are you snapping to judgment and being more irritable than normal? Do you often feel sick to the stomach in a given situation? If you have answered yes to any of these, there is a good chance that the situation that you are in could be causing you stress. By learning to recognize the symptoms of stress for what they are, you can learn how to adjust your life to alleviate their impact.

Staying Calm in Stressful Situations: Tricks from the Trenches

If you were to sit down and talk with a military veteran, an enlisted officer, or a family member, you will soon discover that dealing with high amounts of stress in their everyday life is a pretty commonplace. Words such as “post-traumatic stress disorder” and “stress-related illness” are not words that are bantered about; they are real conditions and situations that these people cope with on a moment to moment basis.

And they are not the only ones. More and more people, from many different walks of life have to learn how to cope and deal with increased levels of chronic stress. Whether the stress you feel comes from a demanding job, a chaotic family life, or something in between, learning how to remain calm in a stressful situation is paramount to mental health and well being.

Just like the body needs protection from the elements, the mind needs a type of mental armor or protection. According to Dr. Amishi Jha of the University of Pennsylvania, research has shown that it is possible to cushion yourself against stress, and those tactics used by military personnel can often work just as effectively with everyday civilians. Here are a few of the most effective.

Meditation

Despite its connotation as being a new-age type of thing, meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and in a number of different ways. Plus, it doesn’t need to have any spiritual connotations associated with it. Practicing a form of mindfulness meditation can boost stress resilience, help to calm a person’s thought process and nerves, and help to train you to live in the moment instead of agonizing about the future. It was shown, for example that after eight weeks of meditating, Marines became less reactive to the stresses in their lives, and became more alert and had better memory retention.

Recognizing Your Knee Jerk Reactions

Another effective way to deal with stressful situations is to train your body and your mind to react differently to the common stressors that you experience. Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is a great way to train you to not react to the stressor in the same way. Methods often used include such things as exposure therapy, where people relive past experiences in small dosages under the watchful supervision of a therapist until memories become less traumatic.

While these intensive visualization exercises should only be performed under the direction of a trained and licensed professional, a less intense form, or practicing feeling stressed is an effective way to help train you how to cope with a stressful situation. By knowing how your body and mind will react, you can more effectively alter your reaction to a more positive one.

For example, try imagining yourself in a tense situation, such as your commute to work. See if you can imagine the tension that you commonly feel. Then write out the factors contributing to the situation at hand.

  1. If I don’t leave by 7:00 am I will be late
  2. Traffic is really congested during this time of day. I can sit in the traffic for at least an hour.
  3. There’s nothing good on the radio that time of morning.

Now consider how you can change the amount of tension that you are feeling. For example, if there is nothing on the radio, perhaps bringing one of your hour long audio books might be a good distraction. This thought exercise accomplishes two different things. First, it makes you realize that the stress you are feeling can be managed. Second, it provides you with a specific way to help reduce the impact of the stress in that situation. This is just one of the methods used by CBT, and if you are interested in trying other ones, the best course of action is to contact a certified practitioner through the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists at www.nacbt.org.

While mental exercises like the ones described above are quite effective in reducing the level of stress that you feel physical exercise is also a great way to alleviate stress as well. In addition, regular exercise, such as bike riding can be a great way to increase muscle tone, lower your blood pressure, and increase your respiratory health. All of which can greatly help in managing your body’s reaction to a stressful situation. While any kind of regular exercise has its benefits, studies have shown that regular exercise outside, such as a bike ride, going for a hike, or even playing a game of softball with your friends are more effective at reducing stress. It has been shown that a combination of activity, fresh air, and friends often help a person gain great strides in handling their stress.

Learning the skills needed to cope in a stressful situation can become an asset to you in nearly every situation. There are a number of different ways, and some of the most effective have been described here.

Stress Can Be a Good Thing

Yes, stress can be a good thing –  this is a true statement. Stress can powerfully motivate us to move towards wonderful things. How can stress do this?

Stress sometimes gets a bad rap because it is associated with something that occurs in a bad situation. But sometimes you can be happy for the added stress that happens.

An example of good stress is called, eustress. The prefix “eu-“means “good.” It is the name given to any type of stressful situation that brings about good results and there are many.

A few examples are:

  • Stress felt before an important speech
  • The stress before an exam
  • When you are competing in a sport
  • During a debate

The stress accompanying these tasks causes you to focus on the task and nothing else. As a result, you practice until you are comfortable with the words and relax – you will soon be able to perform well. Your nervousness can lead to more intense practice sessions to get you ready. Your pulse quickens but it strengthens you to do your best. Endorphins surge during stress.

The fight or flight response is what happens when fear enters the equation. Adrenalin is released when we are afraid. Our senses become more acute as the body prepares to hit the ground running or stand and fight. Our basic instincts take over when we are found in those situations. You hear of extraordinary situations where people have lifted cars off of their loved ones who were hurt in an accident. Or, someone thinks to use their cell phone to call from the trunk of a car when they’ve been kidnapped.

People think of amazing ways to survive when they are in danger. The fight or flight response can get your through some amazing situations. Hostage victims, kidnapped individuals, doctors who perform surgery to save lives – all of these are examples of when you are put in a situation that is on the line.

Good stress lives vibrantly in our lives, but we may not have ever taken the time to see it that way – or think about it much. The healthy stress may get the least thanks in the world, but it deserves more. We can get a long way with healthy stress – it is a teacher and a guide!