What is stress?
Stress is a common feeling that comes from a physiological reaction your body has to certain events. It is the body’s way of rising to a challenge and preparing to meet a tough situation with focus, strength, stamina and heightened alertness.
Even though stress can be a positive thing (like motivating us to make positive changes in our lives or giving us that “extra push” for an exam) sometimes we have too much stress and begin to feel that our lives are out of balance. When this happens managing stress could become a challenge.
What causes stress?
Common events that can stress you out (also called stressors):
- Tests and exams
- Problems at school or work
- New and greater responsibilities
- Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
- Moving to a new place
- A traumatic event—such as the death of a loved one
- New or chronic illness or disability
- Peer pressure or being bullied
- Unrealistic expectations placed on you by yourself, friends, family, or culture
- Watching parents argue
- Feeling guilty
Everyone’s threshold for handling stress is different, and can change from day to day. Depending on your own resiliency (or ability to thrive in spite of adversity), even dealing with one stressor could be enough to overwhelm you. Could you imagine trying to juggle several stressors at once?
How does stress affect the body?
The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The brain tells your glands to produce more of the hormones called adrenaline and cortisol, and to release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and metabolism. These changes within your body help prepare you to deal with pressure, which is also known as a stress response. When this natural reaction works properly, the body’s stress response improves your ability to perform well under pressure.
As helpful as this can be at times, it’s not good for our minds or bodies to have overstimulated adrenal glands. Our bodies don’t discriminate against stress; the chemicals and hormones released in your body (for survival purposes) can’t tell the difference between being chased by a saber-tooth lion and getting yelled at by your parents. The chemical response is the same, and when you’re young, this can affect growth hormones in your body–essentially speeding up puberty so that you can get big and strong to run away from the saber-tooth lion.
Can I be too stressed?
If you have too much stress in your life, it can do more harm than good, but sometimes stress is necessary to get through certain situations. For example, feeling stressed out about an exam might encourage someone to study more and prepare for the exam. However, there’s also a chance it could become overwhelming—making you panic and feeling so nervous about an exam that you can’t study or concentrate.
It’s important to remember that stress affects people in different ways, and what causes one person to become stressed may not have the same effect on someone else. Try not to compare yourself too much to others, they’re all experiencing things unique to them as well.
What can happen if you’re experiencing too much stress?
Too much stress may have negative consequences for your health, both physical and mental.
- Feeling hostile, angry, or irritable
- Feeling anxious
- Avoiding other people
- Moodiness, feeling frustrated with things that normally don’t bother you
- Low self-esteem or lack of confidence
- Anxiety attacks or panic attacks
- Depression or sadness
- Upset stomach, diarrhea, or indigestion
- Inability to sleep
- Eating too much or too little
- Raised heart-rate
If you are experiencing any of these problems you may want to talk to your local doctor, counselor or other mental health professional.
It may not be possible to get rid of the stress altogether in your life, however managing your stress is possible. Below are some ideas for managing stress:
- Tackling the problem. When you’re feeling stressed, you might not realize right away what is causing you stress. First you need to figure out what the problem is and make it manageable. The problem will not go away on its own. In fact, if you ignore the problem, it will probably just get worse. Once you know what the problem is, there are a number of ways you can de-stress.
- Go for a walk or run. Exercising can be a good way to relieve stress. It helps to get rid of pent up energy and can leave you feeling much calmer. Exercising also releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones, which make you feel less pain and make you happier overall! Any sort of exercise can be helpful during stressful times. You may want to go and kick a football with friends, dance, or head to the gym.
- Hang out with friends. If you are feeling stressed, hanging out with friends can be a great way to keep your mind off of things for a while. By talking with friends, you could realize that similar things that stress you out, also stress your friends out. If you are stressing out about school or work, remember that it is also important for you to have a social life. It is okay to go do something fun with your friends and take a break from your other responsibilities sometimes. Balance is key.
- Turn the stressor into something fun. Sometimes you might find that the problem isn’t all that bad. It might even be fun! For example, locking yourself in your room or library to focus on doing work might help with stress. However, working in a silent room might also be making you more stressed. You might want to try getting a group of friends together to study in one place, and then maybe grabbing a bite to eat after. Studying together could lower everyone’s stress levels.
- Take some deep breaths. Deep breathing can help to relax the body and calm you down. Taking deep breaths before an exam, game, job interview or before going on stage may help to calm you down and allow you to focus on the task at hand. The Developing Coping Strategies, Relaxation or Mindfulness articles may also be helpful.
- Set realistic goals. With unrealistic goals, it is hard to keep things in perspective and cause you to get too stressed out. Setting realistic goals (both short-term and long-term ones) and managing your time and expectations may help to reduce or manage stress. You may also want to check out our Problem Solving and Putting Your Goals into Action articles.
- Have multiple paths to achieve your goals. There is never one path to achieving your goals. It is important not to put all your eggs in one basket. You could investigate and plan other ways to get where you want to go, whether it’s a university degree, job, or holiday vacation. Everything might not always play out how you thought it would, but you might end up happy with the results. For example, you might get a new job and be very excited about it. After a few days, you might realize your tasks are not as enjoyable as you had hoped. Though your path to achieving job experience is not exactly what you thought it would be, in the end, you might reach your goal and be completely happy with it.
- Try to avoid harmful behaviors. It may be tempting to use smoking, alcohol, drugs and caffeine as a means of managing your stress. Try to avoid using these substances as a coping mechanism because, in the long run, they may make you more stressed out and can be harmful to the body. Once you rely on something like caffeine, you may realize you are unable to function without it. You may also be tempted to engage in other negative behaviors besides using drugs or alcohol, such as procrastinating, overeating, skipping class, or blaming others. These behaviors will likely get you into trouble, create conflicts, or make you even more stressed out once everything begins piling up.
- Watch what you’re thinking. Your outlook, attitude, and thoughts influence the way you see situations, people, and the world around you. Is your cup half full or half empty? A healthy dose of optimism can help you make the best out of stressful circumstances. Even if you’re out of practice, or tend to be a bit of a pessimist, everyone can learn to think more optimistically and reap the benefits. Learning to embrace the challenges that come up in your life will help you change how you view adversity. Embrace them and conquer them.
- Speaking to someone. If you find that you are always stressed and have a hard time focusing on daily tasks, it may be helpful to talk to someone. It can be hard to ask for help, but your friends and family members might not be able to read your mind and know what’s going on with you. Talking to someone else might help you realize that something you are stressed out about is actually pretty manageable. Parents, teachers, or a school counselor may be able to help you cope.
Stress & Relationships
Maintaining relationships with friends, family, co-workers, or boyfriends/girlfriends may cause you to become stressed, or your being stressed might affect those relationships. To help manage the stress, it could be helpful to talk to someone about what’s upsetting you. Talking to someone that you trust could help you work out why you are stressed out by the situation or relationship and also offer solutions about healthy ways to manage the stress. You can talk to a friend, family member, or teacher, but if you feel more comfortable talking with someone else, you can also talk to a doctor, counselor, or even trained volunteers on a helpline.
What helps you when you’re stressed? Share in the comments below!