hand of woman meditating in a yoga pose on beachStress occurs when we are presented with a real or perceived threat or harmful situation. It is our body’s response to danger and is something we can experience physically, mentally and emotionally.

Stress is an automatic process developed in our early ancestry to ensure our survival. Faced with danger, our body responds instantly, flooding itself with hormones that elevate the heart rate, increase blood pressure, increase breathing, tighten muscles, boost energy and prepare the body to deal with the threat. This is known as the fight/flight response.

In our modern world, we are not often faced with actual life threatening situations, nonetheless our body responds to modern stressors in the same way as our ancestors.

Most of us experience stress at some point in our lives. Some of us experience it more often than others, and some of us have trouble dealing with its effects and overcoming its hold.

Psychologist Paul Loseby from St John of God Murdoch Hospital Ferns Counselling Centre says although stress can be a positive process, motivating us to complete a task or meet a deadline, it often has a negative effect.

“Stress can cause us to feel overloaded, overwhelmed and for want of a better word – STRESSED,” Mr Loseby says.

“Occasional stress generally does not result in long term or chronic health problems, but experiencing stress over a prolonged period can have a detrimental effect on our physical and mental health.”

“It can lower your body’s ability to respond to illness by affecting the immune system, which can result in frequent colds and infections.

“It can also result in cardiovascular disease, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and strokes.

“Ongoing stress can result in a person withdrawing from friends, family and others and lead to serious mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.”

Are you stressed? Look out for these signs and symptoms…

Some physical signs of stress:

  • sleep disturbance (insomnia, sleeping fitfully)
  • clenched jaw
  • grinding teeth
  • digestive upsets
  • lump in your throat
  • difficulty swallowing
  • agitated behaviour, like twiddling your fingers
  • increased heart rate
  • general restlessness
  • sense of muscle tension in your body, or actual muscle twitching
  • dizziness, lightheadedness
  • hyperventilating
  • sweaty palms and/or feet
  • stumbling over words
  • high blood pressure
  • lack of energy
  • fatigue
  • gastrointestinal problems (stomach pain, constipation or diarrhoea)
  • chest pain
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • a change in sex drive
  • shaking and feeling cold

Some cognitive signs of stress:

  • mental slowness
  • confusion
  • general negative attitudes or thoughts
  • constant worry
  • racing thoughts
  • difficulty concentrating
  • forgetfulness
  • difficulty thinking in a logical sequence
  • the sense that life is overwhelming; you can’t problem-solve
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • disorganization
  • poor judgement

Some emotional signs of stress:

  • feeling irritable, angry, sad or depressed
  • frustration
  • moodiness
  • feeling overworked
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • sense of helplessness
  • apathy

Some behavioural signs of stress:

  • decreased contact with family and friends
  • poor work relations
  • sense of loneliness
  • decreased sex drive
  • avoiding others
  • failing to set aside times for relaxation through activities such as hobbies, music, art or reading
  • change in eating habits – eating less/ eating more
  • difficulty sleeping
  • increased use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes

Combatting stress

Since prolonged stress can impact your health in so many ways, it’s important to develop positive coping mechanisms to manage the stress in your life.

Some activities that can help you manage your stress include physical exercise and relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga.

Eating a balanced diet, getting sufficient sleep, reducing your caffeine and alcohol intake are also helpful ways of reducing the effect of stress on the body.

Psychologist Paul Loseby says identifying the cause of your stress is a helpful first step in being able to do something about changing the experience of stress.

“If you feel like stress is getting the better of you, seek help from your doctor,” Mr Loseby says.

“Your doctor can help determine the underlying cause of your stress and can help you to develop strategies to address the stress.”

“A doctor can also help you access a psychologist or other mental health professional who is trained to help you to learn how to manage stress effectively.”

If you need someone to talk to:

Beyondblue – 1300 224 636
Crisis Care Helpline – 9223 1111 or Country Toll Free 1800 199 008
headspace – 1800 650 890
Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Men’s Line Australia – 1300 789 978
Reachout – online youth mental health service
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
The Samaritans Crisis Line – 9381 5555, Youth Line 9388 2500 or Country Toll Free 1800 198 313
Youthbeyondblue – 1300 224 636

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