Stress Management 101 – An Overview on Stress

Sometimes life gives you lemons. Among work, family, personal finance and other commitments, you can become overwhelmed and stressed out. 

Since you can't simply wish stress away, managing stress is a vital skill to develop and is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, just like diet and exercise. First thing first, let's have a scientific and comprehensive overview on stress!

What is Stress?

What exactly is this thing we call “stress”?

Hans Selye, a pioneer in the study of stress, defined stress as “the non-specific (that is, common) result of any demand upon the body, be the effect mental or somatic” (Goldberger and Breznitz, 1993).

To put it simple - as we respond to particular situations in different ways, stress is our body's response to threatening situations. It’s subjective, so something that is stressful for you may not be stressful for someone else. 

Stress can affect our physical and mental health, and our behavior. We react to stress by releasing chemicals and hormones that raise adrenaline and can spike our energy for certain situations that are challenging.

Symptoms of Stress

There are many symptoms of stress that affect our emotions, behavior, mental state and body. 

Although we all experience stress differently, some common physical symptoms of stress include stomach issues, fatigue, chest pain, headaches, palpitation, sleep deprivation, difficulty swallowing.

Effects on mental state include lack of concentration, overthinking, feeling overwhelmed, angry, negativity and memory issues.

There are a whole lot more symptoms of stress that many experience. 

Is All Stress Bad?

Not all stress is bad. The nature of stress is a protective mechanism that warned us of danger; a natural reaction telling us when to run. This response is now referred to as the “fight or flight” response, or the “stress response”.

Some level of stress can have a significant impact on your energy levels and change the way you react in situations in life where you are not expecting something major to happen, such as being able to make a fast turn to avoid a car accident.

However, stress is meant to be temporary. Your body should return to a natural state after the situation has passed. 

Stress becomes harmful when the pressures and demands of modern life put your body in an alert state for a long period of time, making your heart beat fast and your blood vessels constrict for longer than your body can handle. Over time, these physiological demands can take a toll on your body.

Types of Stress

1. Acute Stress

As the most common type of stress, Acute Stress comes on quickly, often unexpectedly and doesn’t last too long, but requires your body's biological response, so Acute Stress shakes you up a bit.

Examples of Acute Stress can be an argument with your loved ones, a costly mistake at work or an exam that you don’t feel well prepared.

Isolated episodes of Acute Stress should not have any negative health effects. All you need is some short-term stress relievers, such as breathing exercises, cognitive re-framing, muscle relaxation and mini meditation, to help you relax and recover quickly from acute stress.

2. Episodic Acute Stress

When acute stress happens frequently, it becomes Episodic Acute Stress.

People who always seem to be having chaos and crisis tend to have Episodic Acute Stress. They are often short-tempered, irritable and anxious. People who are  pessimistic, overthinking or who tend to see the negative side of everything also tend to suffer from Episodic Acute Stress.

Episodic Acute Stress has negative health effects, such as persistent headaches, high blood pressure, muscle tension, chest pain and palpitation.

2. Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is the type of stress that tends to occur constantly on a regular basis. This type of stress may leave you feeling drained, and can lead to burnout if it’s not effectively managed. Chronic Stress often comes from a certain life conditions:

- Poverty or personal finance issues
- A dysfunctional family
- An unhappy marriage or relationship
- A bad job or work environment 

Chronic Stress leads to the health issues that are generally associated with stress, including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, depression and lots of other health risks. This is why it is important to effectively manage chronic stress.

Steps for Stress Management

Before discussing further on stress management techniques, let's check out the overall framework for stress management first. 

The following 7 steps have been adapted from The American Psychological Association (“Check Out the Stress Tip Sheet”, 2018) to support you in getting the best out of a stress management plan:

1. Understand your stress.

How do you stress? This can be different for everybody. By understanding what stress looks like for you, you can be better prepared and reach for your stress management toolbox when needed.

2. Identify your stress sources.

What causes you to be stressed? Be it work, family, change or any of the other potential thousand triggers.

3. Learn to recognize stress signals.

We all react to stress differently so it’s important to be aware of your individual stress symptoms. What are your internal alarm bells? Low tolerance, headaches, stomach pains or is it a combination from the above "symptoms of stress"? 

4. Recognize your stress reduction strategies.

What is your currently go-to tactic for releasing stress? These can be behaviors learned over years and sometimes aren’t the healthy option, but it's important that you face them. For example, using alcohol, overeating or smashing furniture.

5. Implement healthy stress management strategies.

It’s good to be mindful of any current unhealthy coping behaviors so you can switch them out for a healthy option. For example, if overeating is your current way to deal with stress, you could practice meditation instead, or call a friend to chat through your situation.

We will introduce stress management techniques in the next Stress Management 101 article, for now, just remember that switching out one behavior at a time is most effective in creating positive change.

6. Make self-care a priority.

When we make time for ourselves, we put our well-being before others. While this can feel selfish to start, but we often owe ourselves the love and care that we so freely give to other people. 

This is also true for effective stress management. Those simple things that promote well-being, such as enough sleep, healthy food, downtime and exercise are often the ones overlooked. Make time for yourself!

7. Ask for support when needed.

At the same time as you are taking the above tips, don't hesitate to reach out to a friend or family member you are comfortable talking to. The support from loved ones can help a lot. A more effective way is to speak with a healthcare professional or consider psychotherapy. We all have tough times in life that we can't take it on our own, it's very normal to reach out for professional help and learn new strategies for self-care!