‘This assignment has got me so stressed!’
‘I am literally so stressed right now, I can’t think!’
‘My boss is always giving me so much stress!’
I am sure at some point in your day (usually in the evening when the coffee wears off) you hear someone or the other complaining about how stressed they are. The reasons can be anything from stress at work to stressing out about your family. Heck, you have probably said that you are so stressed at some point too!
Have you ever stopped and wondered– why. Why do we have to go through this horrible emotion/ feeling/ mental state that is stress? Why can’t we all just be chilling and cruising through our lives?
This article is designed to answer that very question. But first, we should start with the most basic question– ‘What is stress?’
What exactly is stress?
Stress is defined as your automatic response to danger. Your body kicks into an alert mode and you start processing everything in a flight or fight manner. Your senses heighten and stress hormones like cortisol, adrenalin and CRH start coursing through your veins.
This sort of response to any stressors has existed in humans since several millennia. From the time we were primates without the high thinking capacity we have right now, It is absolutely normal and has saved the lives of our ancestors more than once in the past.
In the present, however, when there are no huge animals in our home or workplace that can eat us (or have to be hunted down) stress can have a negative effect on us.
You see, the human brain cannot differentiate between physical and mental stressors. It reacts to both of them in the same way. For example: If you are worried about not being able to submit an assignment in time, your body will react in the same way as if you were going to be attacked by a tiger. Your heart would start beating faster, your muscles would tense up and your breathing would get quicker. All the stress hormones would be coursing through you at this point making you feel nervous, panicked and anxious.
So at the end of this, you may be crying and having a mental breakdown in the corner of your room instead of trying to finish up the assignment. Not exactly the most productive way to spend the last few hours before your deadline.
This is an extreme reaction. Most times, your stress hormone levels will rise up just enough for you to be worried enough to stay up at night and finish up the assignment. And when that happens, it is actually making things easier for you by helping you stay up and motivated.
So what is the problem with stress?
What can stress cause? Is it really that bad?
A healthy human experiences stress almost every single day of his or her life. In some cases, it acts as that extra push or boost we need to get things done.
But that is not what we are concerned about. It is what happens when you cross the threshold of ‘normal stress’ and step into the ‘too stressed zone to function zone’ AKA having a mental breakdown in the corner of your room.
On a more serious note, when the stress element in your life becomes constant, you have a big fat problem on your hands. Constant stress means your body is perceiving everything from deadlines, snide remarks, workload, to family arguments as a life or death situations. Of course, it reacts in the same way.
But what’s worse is that the more often this happens, the more easily such a reaction is triggered. So soon you will start getting extremely stressed out at the smallest of things (like the usual Indian traffic or your relatives joking about your weight).
This is not good for your mental health (or job/studies or reputation or self-esteem). You will feel overwhelmed and flustered all the time which will lead to moodiness, irritability and even anger. This may result in you pushing away all your friends and eventually loneliness and possible depression. The end result of this whole process could also be substance abuse and addiction.
As you can see, stress leads to a vicious cycle of mental illnesses.
Wait, wait, wait! We are not done here. It gets worse. Stress also makes your body react in horrible ways.
How does stress affect you physically?
It is a common concept that when the mind is healthy, the body usually follows. In the same way, chronic stress not only turns your mental health upside down (and with it your life) but also messes with your physical body.
We are talking about insomnia, obesity, digestive problems and even cardiac issues. Such is the gravity of our situation, sadly.
Here, I’ll give you a rundown of the most prominent issues you could face due to stress:
- Unwanted weight gain: When you are constantly in the flight or fight mode AKA stressed, your body starts preparing itself for the worst. That includes preparing for any unforeseen event where you will not have food to eat (like drought or famine). So, it starts storing fat reserves in your body “just in case”. This translates to unwanted weight gain which can take a hit on your self-esteem.
- Digestive issues: Have you ever had acid reflux, stomach ulcers or heartburn? While not lethal, these issues can still cause you to have one unpleasant day after another. And this is all caused by (you guessed it!) stress.
- Immunity problems: Research has linked psychological stress to severe immune dysfunction. In layman terms, this means that your immune system slowly weakens, leaving you vulnerable to a plethora of diseases and illnesses you would not have had otherwise.
- Aches and pains: During times of stress, blood rushes into your muscles. This keeps your muscles in a constant state of tension. This causes the ‘tight muscles’ in your back that your massage lady is always talking about. These tensed muscles can lead to headaches, backaches and shoulder pain.
- Sexual inhibition: Need I say any more? You will not want to have intercourse with your partner (making them frustrated over time and affecting your relationship), This is because sex is not something that is ‘essential’ for you to live and your body focussing on those essential aspects right now.
- Heart problems: This is the most obvious one. When you are stressed, your heart pumps faster and your blood vessels contract. When the stress is constant, your heart is working much harder than it usually does and your blood pressure remains high. The rest, as they say, is history (or more specifically the history of heart disease).
What are the common symptoms of stress?
There are many signs that differentiate normal everyday stress from the constant concerning kind. Some common symptoms of stress are:
- Mental symptoms: Being very pessimistic, unable to concentrate and constantly worrying or being anxious.
- Physical symptoms: Headaches, body pains and aches. Facing digestive or cardiac issues. Getting ill frequently and feeling nauseous/ dizzy.
- Emotional symptoms: Feeling unhappy and sad, being very moody and annoyed. Feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.
- Behavioural symptoms: Clenching your teeth in your sleep, Not having a regular eating or sleeping schedule. Pulling away from friends and family. Nail-biting, fidgeting and other nervous behaviours.
What causes stress?
The next important question is what causes this ungodly reaction in your body?
Well, we discussed this. It’s danger. Or more accurately, it is when your body perceives danger.
As you now know, your body cannot differentiate between physical and mental stressors. So anything that triggers a sense of danger or doom will invariably result in stress. These triggers are called stressors.
Stressors don’t necessarily have to be positive or negative. Even a positive event like marriage, pregnancy, going to university or getting a better job can be super stressful. Stressors are very individualistic and subjective.
There are two main types of stressors:
- Internal stressors
- External stressors
Internal stressors are things that we do, think or feel that cause our body to respond with stress. This includes being a perfectionist and being too hard on yourself. It can also stem from a lack of flexibility and not being able to accept one’s mistakes.
External stressors are things that happen in our environment that stress us out. These usually are major life changes like a close friend or family member passing away, moving to a new city, illness, divorce, or losing your job.
How can I stop feeling stressed?
As with everything in life, this will take a little effort on your part. The first step to recovery is to recognise that you are actually suffering. With mental illnesses, it is really easy to dismiss that you are in fact suffering because there are no evident physical signs of it that you can see.
This does NOT in any way make mental illness any less dangerous than physical ones.
Of course doing things like yoga, meditation, organising your day and setting up a daily routine can and will help. However, it is important to figure out at which point you need to move up from DIY anti-stressors to professional help.
If you want to know about where and how to get affordable help online in India, you can read our guide about it here.
Stress and anxiety