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What is stress?

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What is stress?

Stress is your body’s response to anything that disrupts your normal life and routines.

Your body responds to stressful events with an instinctive “fight or flight” response. This physical response comes from a rush of adrenaline and other hormones that speed up your heart and breathing and give you a burst of energy so that you can respond to danger.

We may not need to fight, or flee from, predators and immediate danger very often. But the stress response still kicks in when we feel a threat. In the modern world, the causes of stress can be everyday events and changes, such as relationships, work, money, and difficult decisions. They can also be traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, natural disasters, and trauma

Effects of stress

The effects of stress can be emotional, psychological, and physical. Signs of stress are different in everyone, with some people expressing more physical signs, like fatigue or high blood pressure, and others expressing more emotion or psychological signs, like irritability or depression.

Signs of stress include:

  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiety
  • Easily angered or frustrated
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Problems with memory
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Rapid heartbeat

If stress lasts too long or happens too often, it can lead to more serious problems such as anxiety or depression, and physical health problems such as heart disease and obesity. According to the American Psychological Association, the majority of office visits to the doctor involve stress-related complaints, and stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

Stress at work

Many of us spend a significant portion of our lives at work. We may derive a great deal of our identity and security from our jobs. We also might experience a great deal of job stress.

Job conditions that may lead to work stress (from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health):

  • Workload. Heavy workloads, infrequent breaks, long work hours and shift work, hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, all of which underutilize workers’ skills and provide little sense of control
  • Management style. Lack of participation by workers in decision making, poor communication in the organization, and a lack of family-friendly policies
  • Interpersonal relationships. Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and/or supervisors
  • Work roles. Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, and too many "hats to wear"
  • Career concerns. Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion; rapid changes for which workers are unprepared
  • Environmental conditions. Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions, such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems

Stress and the economy

More and more Americans are feeling the effects of the economy as job losses mount, retirement savings erode, and the housing market falls. In the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress In America Survey for 2008, Americans reported their top three causes of stress as money, the economy, and work. Women were more likely than men to report stress and its effects because of the economy.

Stress and disasters

Mass disasters, such as hurricanes and terrorism, affect entire communities. Communities often show a collective resilience as they pull together and rebuild after such tragic events.

Dr. Russ Newman describes the research on resilience after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the American Psychological Association’s “Road to Resilience” project that came out of it. He writes, “Without question, the strongest sentiment expressed by focus group participants was one of confidence and determination that people will ‘bounce back’ from the initial emotional and psychological impact of the attacks. Resilience seemed to take on a new relevance for participants in their post-9/11 lives.”

Common misconceptions

Stress is the same for everybody.
Stress is different for each of us. What is stressful for one person may or may not be stressful for another; we all respond to stress in different ways.

Stress is always bad for you.

According to this view, having no stress would make us happy and healthy. This is not the case; stress is a natural human response to changing conditions around us. Stress prompts us to grow and adapt to changes. Even the most positive life events involve stress. The issue, really, is how to manage it. Managed stress is part of being productive and happy; out-of-control stress is harmful.

Stress is everywhere, so you can't do anything about it
You can plan your life so that stress does not overwhelm you. Effective planning involves setting priorities and working on simple problems first, solving them, and then moving on to more complex difficulties. When stress gets overwhelming, it is difficult to prioritize events and responsibilities in your life. All your problems seem to be equal and stress seems to be everywhere. Taking active steps to cope and manage stress can reduce it to a more comfortable level.

No symptoms, no stress.

An absence of symptoms does not necessarily mean the absence of stress. In fact, camouflaging symptoms -- for instance, with drugs or alcohol -- may deprive you of the natural signals you need to reduce the strain on your body and mind.

Only major symptoms of stress require attention
This myth assumes that “minor” symptoms, such as headaches or stomach acid, may be safely ignored. Minor symptoms of stress are the body’s natural early warning system and can prompt you to take steps to manage your stress.

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