Stress is often defined as the body’s response to the demands of life, though stress also involves emotions and the mind. It is the internal, conditioned reaction of a person to perceived external pressures and is experienced as thoughts and feelings as well as physical processes. A mental health professional can often help treat any difficulties experienced as a result of coping with high levels of stress.
The American Institute of Stress calls stress “America’s leading health problem.” In many cases, the stress experienced by Americans today is felt in response to psychological threats, such as job loss or difficulty finding employment, the death of a loved one, or relationship issues, all of which may occur more than once in the course of life.
Stress evolved, however, in the form of a fight or flight response as a reaction to physical threats on one’s life. This response, which causes the physical aspects of stress—increased blood flow and clotting and elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar—is immediate and uncontrollable, and when these physical aspects affect the body several times over the course of a day, often as a result of issues such as workplace stress, bad traffic, or familial illness, they can influence the development of conditions such as hypertension, stroke, diabetes, chronic pain, and heart attacks.
Stress can also directly cause physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and fatigue, and it often contributes to mental conditions such as anxiety, depression, or irritability.
What Causes Stress?
Both positive and negative experiences and life transitions can lead to stress. The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory shows this by indexing common stressful events and using a numerical value to rank the events, using these values to determine a person’s potential to become ill as a result of stress. Some of the more frequent stressors in life, most of which appear on the stress inventory, include:
Losing a job
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Getting divorced or going through a breakup
Being discriminated against
Experiencing a change in financial status
Having a child
Beginning or ending school
Experiencing a loss
Being diagnosed with a serious illness
These events are generally considered to be normal parts of the life cycle. Not everyone will experience a divorce or marriage or have a child, but many will experience discrimination, lose a job, go through a breakup, and experience other affecting events, whether major or minor. Stress will therefore be a part of most people’s lives, but it may be somewhat easier to manage when experienced in smaller amounts, especially when other factors help mitigate the stress. A marriage, for example, is generally considered to be a happy event, and though it may be stressful to plan and prepare for the ceremony, the excitement experienced by the couple may help reduce the physical and mental effects of the stress experienced.
The Effects of Stress on Health
Few people will deny being stressed at least once in their lifetime, but for many, stress can be ongoing and unbearable. Chronic stress can contribute to a myriad of mental health and physical health issues. Research has linked high-stress levels to:
Insomnia or hypersomnia
Reduced or increased appetite
Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
Changes in mental health
Decreased productivity and enjoyment at work
Decreased enjoyment in social activities
Heart attack and stroke
When these complaints occur as a result of stress, they may often clear up as the stressful situation is resolved. However, they can become serious, and treatment from a doctor or mental health professional may often be necessary, especially if stress persists.
Therapy for Stress
When the stress of life leads to drug abuse, chronic physical ailments or pain, an absence of pleasure or relaxation in life, or when it affects one’s well-being negatively in any way, it may be helpful to meet with a mental health professional or medical doctor to receive treatment for the manifested symptoms of stress and work through the issues causing it.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is often an effective form of therapy for stress, as the technique can help change negative thought patterns that develop as a result of stress, helping the person in treatment find new ways of thinking about stressful events that may not have such a negative effect.
When stress occurs as a result of another condition, or an event such as a loss, a divorce, or a life-altering medical diagnosis, therapy can help address these concerns and their other effects on a person’s life. When workplace issues lead to stress, for example, ways to deal with those issues can be explored with the help of a therapist. When stress develops as a result of a family or relationship issue, couples or family therapy may help resolve the issue, leading to a reduction in the levels of stress experienced.
Coping with Stress Individually
Typically, therapists will also be able to give advice on stress reduction tactics that can be used to manage stress at any time. Stress affects the body, mind, and emotions, so stress reduction can occur in each of these areas:
A hot bath.
Exercise, such as running, dancing, or yoga.
Reality testing negative thoughts and catastrophic thinking.
Planning in advance.
Focusing on positive things.
Laughing or crying.
Expressing stress through art or writing.
Talking stressful events over with someone trusted.
Engaging in any enjoyable, relaxing activity, such as cooking, crafting, or gardening.
Caring for a pet has been shown to be helpful for managing stress as well as other conditions. Self-help books and seminars that teach coping methods or ways to reduce stress may also be effective for some individuals.
Stress from perfectionism: Ben, 47, recently experienced a minor heart attack and was told by his doctor to reduce his level of stress. He runs his own business with a budget of over ten million dollars, and although a good deal of his income goes to support his large family, the maintenance of two homes, and toward some old debts, he has no financial needs. Ben reports that he often feels angry and emotionally distanced from his family, though he knows that they love him. In therapy, Ben discusses his drive to achieve and readily accepts the suggestion that he is something of a perfectionist. Before long, he also uncovers an intense anxiety about letting down his father, whose own business acumen was such that Ben feels he would have had to “conquer the world” to please him. For the short term, the therapist teaches Ben meditation techniques and encourages him to explore other methods of relaxation, such as a sport or hobby, on his own. Over the next two months, the therapist helps Ben come to terms with his father’s disappointment, and after several sessions, Ben begins to notice a decrease in the amount of stress he experiences, and he feels more relaxed and open around his family, even after working long days, and they begin to set aside more time to enjoy leisure activities together.
Stress from insecure future: Sonia, 24, feels overworked. She has little money, and what she has she spends on alcohol, drinking every night after work in order to relax enough to sleep. However, she is often still too stressed to sleep, so she ends up going to the gym and running to the point of exhaustion, often in the middle of the night. She sometimes collapses at work, falling further behind, which increases her level of stress. She is not happy and cannot fathom what her future will be. In therapy, she reveals a serious coffee habit (measured in pots, not cups, per day) and her general unhappiness with her job and her life. In response to the therapist’s questions, she reports that she obtained a bachelor’s degree in fine art and that she was considered to be a talented painter by her professors, but that she failed to make money or find a job in her field after graduating and therefore gave up on art. She considers the therapist’s suggestion that not pursuing her goals or using her talents may have helped contribute to the development of the significant stress she is under and agrees that the suggestion may have some merit. The therapist demonstrates some relaxation techniques, including deep breathing and positive imagery, and helps Sonia articulate short and long term goals. They then begin together to identify the steps required to achieve these goals, and Sonia decides to abstain from alcohol and reduce her caffeine intake. She is able to rearrange her work schedule in order to begin taking master’s level art classes, and she begins to paint again, which helps reduce her stress significantly.