Stress is in the air and before we even realise it, this might affect us too. In this competitive era where life is tightly arranged in the form of ‘to-do lists’, where a constantly ticking clock reminds us of the impending deadlines or haunts us of the uncertainties of life, we tend to feel that the reign of living is slowly slipping away from our hands, the very origin of stress.
Stress is a state of mental strain or tension that results from adverse or demanding circumstances, and beyond a level affects our health detrimentally. Hans Selye, the author of The Stress of Life, talks about stress as “the spice of life”, and defines it as the “nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it”. These demands can be caused by pleasure, challenge or fulfilment as well as anger or resentment. Like the very definition, stress ‘spices’ up our living and can alter the balance in both ways. In short, stress is the body’s way of responding to a demand. Since evolutionary times, stress has been mandatory for survival, and hence necessary. But like any good thing, stress can be harmful when in excess, decompensating the adaptive mechanism of the body.
There are different types of stress. The first, acute stress, due to immediate past or impending future, is usually short-term. Episodic acute stress is a more severe form in which a person feels constantly edgy and apprehensive and rarely gets relief. Chronic stress—a long-term burden—can manifest as a result of a past trauma or abuse. In others, chronic stress can occur in response to everyday stressful situations that are neglected and not managed appropriately. As a result, the body fails to rejuvenate.
In general, we tend to think of stress as something negative; however, some types of stress can actually lead us to challenge ourselves and work harder. This type of stress is known as ‘eustress’ (guided by our autonomic nervous system). It can drive us to reach our goals. For instance, we may experience eustress before a job interview or a competitive exam. The human function curve by Peter Nixon posits that one experiences different levels of stress and our stress level affects our performance. Nixon refers to any state in which we are awake and reacting to a situation or an object as the arousal state, such as being at work or doing household chores. Our performance is initially enhanced when we experience eustress. But according to this model, there is a point where chronic stress can lead to a decline in the performance.
Stress can have diverse physical, psychological and behavioural implications. Psychological implications include anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, irritability and depression. Behaviourally one becomes jittery, edgy, apprehensive and agitated. Chronic stress has directly been related to heart problems, stroke, diabetes, obesity, eating disorders, hypertension and sexual dysfunction. The brain and mind work in unison and thus stress can have various short-term and long-term consequences on the human physique. It is important to note, however, that these are all preventable, if harmful stress is detected and managed early. All of us experience stress at some point in our lives. But we hardly pay attention to it or our efforts to combat it. Rarely would you see someone reflect on their stressful times and how to deal with them better.
Self-awareness is important for stress-management. It is essential for a person to monitor their habits and emotions and reflect on what really is causing the excessive stress. Each person is unique in their ‘eustress threshold’ and in how they cope. Various coping mechanisms can be used to shield an individual from the adverse outcomes of stress. These techniques are often individualised.
The four ‘A’s of stress postulates four common choices for dealing with a stressor: Avoid the stressor (as much as possible); Alter the stressor (modify situations to suit you, be assertive, identify your positives); Accept the stressor (partially ‘letting go’ often helps when you can); Ask for help if needed.
A corporate worker, a student, an adolescent, a homeless person, a housewife: all might have different reasons and types of stress. It depends on the individual environment, occupation and socio-economic hierarchy and needs. Some things however stay constant: the harmful effects of stress, the need for awareness and the need to manage it well.
Other ways to reduce stress might include: Exercise (any form of it); meditation/yoga/any form of martial arts; progressive relaxation (by Jacobson, alternate tightening and relaxing of muscles); time management (should include ‘me’ time); visualisation and guided imagery (can be practiced in presence of professionals); regular vacations and adequate healthy humour; decreased screen time (cut down use of technology); refreshing sleep.
There is no one single strategy that suits all. Being aware of your difficult times and your stress threshold, and sharing your stress are vital. We should not hesitate to seek help from physicians, psychologists, counsellors or even our own family members if stress pushes us beyond our limits. There might be numerous stress-management workshops and lectures conducted these days but being a psychiatrist, I can stress on the fact that stress management is learnt hands-on and not from slides or pages. Stress in its true form is adaptive and helps us grow and adapt. Let us help us help ourselves.
(Chehak Gidwani, psychology student at LSR, New Delhi, contributed to the article)
Dr Debanjan Banerjee
MD, Geriatric Psychiatrist, National Institute of Mental
Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru