Understanding Stress

& Treatment for Stress

Written by: Ashley Gilmour
Clinical Psychologist

Stress is something that affects everyone at many points in our lives. Whilst there is an optimal amount of stress we need, too much of it can cause psychological and physical health problems. Read below to learn more about stress, what causes it, and how you can learn to manage your stress more effectively.
WHAT IS STRESS & WHAT CAUSES IT?

WHAT IS STRESS & WHAT CAUSES IT?

Stress is one of the words that we say and hear almost every day in our lives. When there is a lot of work load that we do not even know how to begin to tackle, we can feel stressed out. When there is heavy traffic and we arelate for work or school, we can feel stressed out. Some people are more vulnerable than others to stress; for some, even everyday decisions or tasks feeltoo great to be overcome. What is stressful to one person is not necessarily stressful to another. Some of the most common causes of stress are bereavement, family problems, illness, financial matters, relationships, overcrowding, pollution, a buildup of minor challenging situations and many more. But do we really know what stress is and how it affects our physical and mental health?

To simply put, stress is the feeling we have when under pressure, while stressors are the things we respond to in our environment. Stress is caused by two things. Primarily it is down to whether we think situations around us are worthy of stress or distress. And then it is down to how our body reacts to our thought processes. This instinctive physical response to unexpected events or stressors is known as ‘fight or flight’.

Our fight or flight response is our body’s sympathetic nervous system reacting to a stressful event. Our body produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which trigger the physical reactions listed below in order to help us protect ourselves in a dangerous or challenging situation.
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When we are stressed the following physical responses happen:

Heart rate (pulse) rises

Blood pressure rises

Constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body (e.g., genitals leading to difficulty obtaining erection)

Dilation of blood vessels in major muscles in the body (e.g., legs)

Breathing becomes more rapid (hyperventilation)

Increased release of fats and sugars (to increase energy supply for muscular action)

Pupil dilation

Relaxation of bladder (need to urinate)

Digestive system slows down

Digestion slows down or stops

Immune system goes down

Muscles become tense, particularly around the neck, shoulders and chest areas, and jaw

Increased mental alertness

Increased sweating

Tunnel Vision

Stress Vs. Anxiety

In any given day, everyone experiences stress or anxiety. Are they different? Yes they are. Stress is typically the feeling of feeling as though your demands outweigh your resources. In other words, feeling overwhelmed with pressure, which results in a flight or fight response. Such stress thoughts might be “I have so many assignments to get done by the end of the week – why did I leave all this to the last minute?”. In this situation, the person feels under the pump to get a high load of work done in a short amount of time, but they are not necessarily worried that it is not going to work out okay in the end.

Anxiety on the other hand, has a similar physiological response of flight or fight, though is quite different on a cognitive (thought) level. For a similar situation of assignments being due, the thought may be along the lines of “There are so many assignments to get done by the end of the week. There is no way that I am going to finish these. I’m going to fail for sure, then I’m not going to be able to graduate, everyone else is going to graduate instead, and I’m going to look like an idiot”. With anxiety, fear overcomes all emotions accompanied by worry and apprehension (e.g., if will complete all the assignments in time, or fail), making a person a recluse and a bagful of jitters. Other symptoms are chest pains, dizziness, and shortness of breath and panic attacks.

If stress persists, it can turn into an anxiety, and this anxiety can remain even after the stressor has gone or been resolved.

The physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by the brain sending messages to parts of the body to prepare for the “fight or flight” response. The heart, lungs and other parts of the body work faster. The brain also releases stress hormones, including adrenaline.

Common indicators of anxiety include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • Dissociative feelings where you feel as though you are outside of your body, or the world seems unreal
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability or anger
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Fear of going “crazy” or losing control
  • The feeling of worry and apprehension, and fear
  • Mind racing that you find difficult to slow down

There may also be panic attacks which are periods of really intense anxiety or fear that come on within minutes and during these periods, it is typical to feel as though you are going “crazy”, losing control, having a heart attack, or going to die.

Symptoms of Stress

Symptoms of Stress

Stress is a significant factor that contributes to the development of many physical and mental health conditions. Stress may not cause these conditions or diseases right away, but can happen over time. Have you ever heard of the statement that “too much stress will kill you?”. There is truth to this in the sense that stress wears out your body much faster than when your body is fairly relaxed most of the time. Thus, it is very important for people to learn how to reduce the impact of stress and manage the symptoms so that it would not lead to anxiety or other physical or mental conditions.

Because people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary. Symptoms can be vague and may be the same as those caused by medical conditions. So it is important to discuss them with your doctor. While it sounds a bit scary how a simple stress can turn out into a bigger problem, the good news is that, you can learn to deal with situations so that you are not left feeling stressed out a lot of the time. Here are the common symptoms of stress we need to watch out for:
Emotional symptoms of stress include:

Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody

Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control

Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind

Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed

Avoiding others

Physical symptoms of stress include:

Low energy

Headaches

Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea

Aches, pains, and tense muscles

Chest pain and rapid heartbeat

Insomnia

Frequent colds and infections

Loss of sexual desire and/or ability

Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet

Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing

Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

Constant worrying

Racing thoughts

Forgetfulness and disorganization

Inability to focus

Poor judgment

Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side

Behavioral symptoms of stress include:

Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much

Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities

Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes

Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing

Mental Health Conditions That Stress Can Lead To

Mental Health Conditions That Stress Can Lead To

Scientists studying the predisposing factors of mental illness have found a likely contributor: the body’s stress response. When the body reacts to stressors, two systems are activated further, the endocrine system and the sympathetic nervous system. The endocrine system increases more cortisol, and the sympathetic nervous system increases more epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), both of which are stress hormones and are responsible for all those anxiety and stress symptoms you feel in your body.

People with chronic stress have a higher chance of ending up with a depression or anxiety disorder. Some studies have found that people who had stress related jobs — like demanding work with few rewards — had an 80% higher risk of developing depression within a few years than people with lower stress. Stress puts people at risk of developing, and/or worsening any sort of new or existing psychological condition such as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, PTSD, in addition to depressive and anxiety disorders. This is also true for physical conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, gut health issues, and pain conditions. It was once thought that the mind and the body are separate entities, however this is definitely not the case. The mind and the body are very much connected – you cannot react in a stressful or anxious way, without it affecting you physically in some way. Our minds are very powerful.

Learning to Deal With Stress

What treatments are available to help me learn to reduce my stress?

Psychological therapy is highly effective for helping people to learn to identify and deal with stress (and anxiety) symptoms and stressful situations effectively. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective form of therapy for stress, as the technique can help you learn resilience strategies to cope with stress, in addition to strategies to help you learn to identify and change negative thought patterns in response to a stressor and cause you feelings of stress (and anxiety). Such treatment is about helping you to find new ways of thinking about stressful events so that you remain calm and confident in dealing with situations as they arise. As we have mentioned, the mind is very powerful. Just as we can think in a negative way that gives us stress or anxiety, we can change our thought processes in response to situations to mitigate stress and anxiety. Learning Mindfulness therapy techniques and meditation and relaxation management strategies, and effective problem-solving strategies are also highly effective components of psychological therapies for stress management.

If you are having trouble learning to deal with your stress effectively, it is important to seek the help of a Clinical Psychologist who can provide you with effective techniques so that you can start to enjoy your life again and reduce your risk of developing some other psychological or physical health condition.

Medications from your Doctor such as antidepressants may be prescribed to help reduce your symptoms of stress and anxiety. However, it is important to understand that medications are likely only going to mask the stress temporarily, rather than help you deal and cope with it so that you can continue to face challenging situations into the future and feel confident with dealing with them in a calm manner.
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HOW CAN WE HELP?

If you or someone you know is having trouble dealing with chronic stress, or have been going through a difficult time dealing with some current stressors such as divorce, work-related issues etc, it is important to get the right professional treatment to get you, or them on the path to recovery and back to living a fulfilling, happy life.

Here at Vitality Unleashed Psychology, Ashley Gilmour, Clinical Psychologist specialises in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of stress, and we are able to help you learn to manage your stress (and anxiety) with an evidenced-based psychological approach.

Vitality Unleashed Psychology provides Bulk-Billing psychology consultations to individuals with a Mental Health Care Plan from their GP. To find out more information about psychology treatment under Medicare, click here.

To make an enquiry about how we can help you or to book an appointment over the phone, call us on 07 55743888.

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