What is stress? Do we need stress? Do we need to get rid of stress?

We all need stress to function on a day to day basis. Stress helps us get up in the morning and gives us motivation to do chores, go to work, or even go have fun. Too much stress, on the other hand, creates unpleasant tension, and if prolonged and accumulated can lead to serious physiological and psychological consequences.

Our bodies are designed to deal with short bursts of stress. There is a quick release of adrenaline which gives you the boost to deal with the situation at hand. Which stress is unhealthy then? Exactly the same stress that is healthy, but extended over a long period of time. For example, if you pick up your cell phone and hold it up, your body experiences slight stress. The body is designed to deal with that stress so efficiently that you don't even feel it! If, however, you hold that phone up for an hour, you'll feel the accumulated stress through the tension in your arm. If you manage to hold it up for a day, someone will need to call 911 for you! Notice that the stress was exactly the same holding up your cell phone. But the length of time that stress is applied determines the effect on your body. Knowing that, you can now look at your day and see if you are "holding anything up" for too long. Whether it is problems at work that you bring home or your credit card balance that you bring to a party, put it down for the time that you are not dealing with it. When you are back at work, pick up that stress again and you'll be more productive dealing with it because you've rested (in the example with the cell phone, if you took breaks by putting the phone down, you wouldn't need 911 the next day).

Now think of your heart, your brain, and other organs. When you are stressed, your organs experience tension just like your arm does when it is holding something for too long. Even though your heart or your lungs will not give in by next day since they are designed to take much more prolonged stress compared to your arm, the constant jumps in blood pressure will strain your heart and chronic lack of oxygen from shallow breathing will strain your lungs, brain, and other organs in your body.

If you feel that you are more irritable than usual, that you are relying on coffee/alcohol/cigarettes to get you through the day, or that you cannot simply sit and relax, you might be stressing your body too much.

If you are at a level where you do not enjoy life anymore, have trouble sleeping, have reduced (compared to your usual) sex drive, and notice feelings of worthlessness then you probably exceeded your stress threshold and you need to consider talking to a professional.

Some sources of stress are well described in psychological literature:
  • Significant events such as finding a new job, getting married, selling or buying a house (property), getting a divorce, or facing the death of a loved one.
  • Major worries such as financial difficulties, chronic illness, or having to take care of both young children and elderly parents.
  • Daily annoyances such as getting stuck in traffic.
Other sources of stress are not well described but contribute to your overall stress level potentially tipping you over the limit:
  • Not being dressed for the weather or not having the right temperature at home or work and either feeling too cold or too hot for a prolonged period of time.
  • Being overbooked and rushing from one thing to another without taking short breaks.
  • Having unresolved issues or "unfinished business" with your relatives/friends/co-workers.
What can you do to balance stress in your life?
  • Manage your time effectively; plan for the next day leaving space for something spontaneous.
  • Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep each day; aim for 7.5 8 hours.
  • Develop an exercise routine that works for you, not for someone else.
  • Know your boundaries and do not let other people cross them by asking you to do things for them putting their stress onto you. At the same time, respect other people's boundaries and carry your own weight.
  • Don't try to be perfect. It will put too much stress on you and the result will be much less than perfect.
  • Develop a positive attitude and you will attract more positive people who are usually good at regulating their stress levels. Learn from their strategies.
  • Try new experiences, take a new route home or try ordering a new dish.
If these suggestions do not work for you or you need more guidance in recognizing the sources of stress and strategies to managing it, consider talking to a professional.