Managing Stress

by Dr. Nor Ashikin Mokhtar

Stress is probably the most over-used word of the 20th and 21st century. We are all victims of stress, brought on by our work, personal lives, relationships, and health.

We have come to accept that stress is inevitable. But we should not let it take over our lives and affect our health or well-being negatively. By learning to manage your stress, you can give your body a break and learn to enjoy life.

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What Causes Stress

Stress is not just something you experience for a while, and then goes away. Your body actually reacts to stress, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Over time, these reactions have an impact on your health.

First, let's look at what causes stress. In today's fast-paced, highly-competitive world, we stress ourselves out with all sorts of worries. Sometimes stress is thrust upon us, for example, becoming unexpectedly ill, or we bring it upon ourselves, for example, trying to do too much at work.

Even exciting things happening in our lives can produce stress as well – getting a promotion or having a baby is great, but you may experience changes, uncertainties, and anxieties that cause stress.

Women are particularly susceptible to stress caused by hormonal changes, during puberty, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause – hormone levels fluctuate consistently and cause stress.

Bad, Bad Stress

Is there such a thing as good stress? Well, considering that stress is a natural reaction by humans, there has to be a reason for it.

Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger. Thanks to the body's 'fight or flight' response, you will experience a rush of adrenaline in an emergency situation that prepares you to run or defend yourself.

Some people perform best under stress, such as musicians, athletes, or even politicians!

Stress becomes bad when your body has to continuously respond to it. This will cause wear and tear on the body – both physical and emotional – and one day, you will discover that you are functioning at far lower levels than you used to.

Prolonged stress, leading to distress, can disturb the body's internal balance or equilibrium, leading to physical symptoms such as headache, an upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, and problems sleeping.

If you are overly stressed, you may also be plagued by ulcers, lower abdominal cramps, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. You may find yourself falling sick with colds and common infections more often due to a weaker immune system. Or, an attack of the rashes may come on!

Women suffer from unique problems related to stress – in extreme cases, it can lead to absence of menstruation or abnormal bleeding. Hormonal imbalances caused by stress may exacerbate the symptoms of fibroid tumours and endometriosis, and make it more difficult for couples to conceive a baby.

Some women experience changes in their sexuality and encounter various sexual dysfunctions such as loss of desire and vaginal dryness as a result of stress.

Distress can also cause emotional problems, such as depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry.

Stress becomes part of a vicious circle when people engage in the compulsive use of substances or behaviours to try to relieve their stress, such as turning to food, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, and the internet. Rather than relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances and compulsive behaviours tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause more problems.

Getting Stressed When You Are Already Ill

Research suggests that stress can also worsen or exacerbate certain symptoms or illnesses. Not everyone responds in the same way to a certain illness, and the addition of mental stress on top of that individual response certainly affects it. For instance, certain diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, peptic ulcer disease, or cardiac disease can worsen with mental stress. It is important for women who already have some form of heart disease, such as high blood pressure, heart palpitations or high cholesterol, to be careful, because heart disease is one of the top killers of women.

How can you tell when you are stressed? Generally, an increased pulse rate is a good indication that your adrenaline has gone up, but you can be stressed while having a normal pulse rate.

Other giveaways are constant aches and pains, palpitations, anxiety, chronic fatigue, crying, over- or under-eating, frequent infections, and a decrease in your sexual desire.

A good indication is if you feel like you are 'out of it' and you lose interest in most things. You may find yourself grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw all the time, suffer from indigestion, muscle tension, trembling or shaking, and even inexplicable diarrhoea.

If you experience all this or more, you do not need anyone to tell you that you really need to relax. If you do not make an effort to cut out the stress from your life, it could cause serious problems to your health and well-being.

How to Manage Stress

Start with your state of mind – be positive about things in life and accept that there are events that you cannot control. Do not let anger, frustration, or fear crowd your mind. Try to look for constructive solutions instead.

Lifestyle choices can help your body fight stress. Exercise regularly so that your body is fit. Eat healthy, well-balanced meals to keep your energy levels up and your immune system strong. Get enough rest and sleep – this makes a huge difference in helping you recover from stress.

Finally, make choices in life that are right for you. Know when to say 'no' to requests that will cause excessive stress, and manage your time effectively to handle what you have on your plate.

Know when to ask for help, either from friends, family, colleagues, bosses, or even health professionals such as your doctor or psychologist.

Do not let stress run your life, or you will be constantly sick, tired and frustrated. What kind of life would that be?

More info on STRESS here.

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