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June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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What is stress?

Stress occurs when some situation, irritation or force confronts you and you have to adjust. It can result from physical factors such as illness, poor diet, or hunger; environmental factors such as noise, temperature, or pollution; psychological factors such as threats to self-esteem, loneliness, or negative thinking patterns; or situational factors such as changing roles, changing plans, or the threat of bodily harm.

Stress can result from positive events as well as negative ones. For example, getting married, receiving a promotion, having a baby, or winning the lottery can cause stress. Stress can be caused by major events as well as minor events or daily hassles and irritations. Any change has the potential for causing stress when it forces you to adjust in some way. Stress is an unavoidable fact of life. Having some stress is actually beneficial because it gives us the push we need to achieve goals.

Most importantly, each person's experience of stress is highly individual. How one experiences stress is often influenced by perception, attitudes, goals and temperament. For example, some people find living in the city stressful while others find living in the country stressful. Having quiet time alone may relax one person but make another person feel anxious.

What happens when I am under stress?

Whether you are confronting a tiger or sitting in a traffic jam, stress causes your body to respond in a particular way. For example, your heart may beat faster, the pupils of your eyes dilate, your muscles get tense, and the palms of your hands may get sweaty.Your body undergoes a series of chemical changes known as the "fight or flight" response and you are geared up to fight or flee. Most of the stressful situations in modern life do not allow us opportunities to fight or run away. When too much stress builds up, we experience physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms. If stress becomes chronic, we may eventually develop an illness or disease. It is estimated that as many as 90% of visits to the doctor are related to symptoms or diseases linked to stress.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress can produce a variety of physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms. Please note that a number of other conditions can also produce many of these symptoms. You should contact your doctor if any of these symptoms are severe or persistant.

Physical symptoms of stress may include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Muscle pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches
  • Hyperventilation
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Heart palpitations
  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent illness
  • Rapid pulse
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Irregular menstrual cycles

Emotional symptoms of stress may include:

  • Crying
  • Impatience
  • Irritability
  • Hostility and combativeness
  • Worrying
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suspiciousness
  • Feeling numb, cold or uncaring
  • Confusion
  • Low self-esteem

Behavioral symptoms of stress may include:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Tardiness
  • Absenteeism
  • Indecisiveness
  • Focusing on insignificant minutia
  • Fighting
  • Rushing
  • Nail biting
  • Overeating
  • Alcohol, drug use and smoking
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor judgment
  • Clumsiness
  • Low productivity
  • Tapping feet or fingers
  • Withdrawal

How is stress treated?

Your health care provider can treat certain symptoms. He or she may refer you to a counselor who can provide you with methods for reducing and coping with stress. Counseling can help you identify which sources of stress you can avoid, which you can change, and which require adjustment. Relaxation techniques, deep breathing, stretching your muscles, improving your diet and exercising can help relieve stress.

Other coping strategies include:

  • Losing weight, if you are overweight
  • Giving up smoking, illicit drugs or excessive alcohol use
  • Eating three or more small, nutritious, low-fat, high-fiber meals each day
  • Making time for relationships with family and friends
  • Making time for yourself
  • Simplifying your life
  • Developing hobbies or taking part in sports or social activities
  • Getting adequate sleep (sleep needs vary among people, but most need a minimum of 7 hours per night)
  • Sharing your responsibilities and getting support
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Breaking goals into small steps rather than focusing on the entire project
  • Talking about your problems and feelings to a trusted confidante or therapist

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