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Definition of Stress

Stress is a general term that covers a variety of stimuli, both positive and negative. Positive stress can cause human beings to perform better and feel fulfilled; this is known as "eustress" which roughly means "challenge". For example, meeting an exciting life partner or a job promotion is a positive type of stress. However, excessive stress, negative stress or prolonged stress can develop into "distress" or "overload". Negative stress develops when life demands more from a person than he is able to handle and when the person is faced with expectations that he feels he is unable to meet. Distress can cause problems both mentally and physically and affects our health in a very real way. Stress is highly treatable and in most cases manageable.

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Symptoms of Stress

Stress is not so much an illness with its own set of symptoms as it is a catalyst for other illnesses to develop. Some of the symptoms of stress include: Difficulty sleeping, panic attacks, changes in appetite, feelings of sorrow, social withdrawal, feelings of worthlessness, tense muscles, pain, shooting pains and spasms, headaches, Chest pains, gastrointestinal problems as well as a host of other symptoms unique to the individual suffering from a particular source of stress.

There are many stress-related illnesses and anxiety disorders. Fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome and depression may all begin with stress and may possibly be caused by stress. Too much stress weakens the immune system through the production of cortisone, a hormone that is released both during times of stress and at the ending phase of an illness. Cortisone is the "off switch" for the body's defenses. Overstressed people get sick more easily and in some extreme cases may exhibit psychosomatic symptoms like panic attacks. More serious emotional manifestations of stress include post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, dissociative disorder and phobias. Stress is also a factor in aggravating gastrointestinal disorders like ulcer and irritable bowel syndrome.

Types of Stess

There are three types of stress:

  • Acute Stress
  • Episodic Acute Stress
  • Chronic Stress

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The most common type of stress is known as acute stress and results from demands, expectations and pressures of an immediate threat or of the recent past and/or the expected demands, worries and pressures of the near future. The threat can be any danger or perceived danger that is felt or experienced, even if wrongly or subconsciously. Such periods of stress are then followed by periods of relative calm. Some of the most common sources of acute stress include: natural disasters, unsatisfied hunger or thirst, loneliness or isolation, unmanageable or new environments, sudden noise, formation of crowds, fears and presence of dangers, disease or the fear of any of these.

A small dose of acute stress can stimulate and excite the person but too much acute stress will drain the person and sap his emotional and physical energies, leaving the person worn out. Overdoing short-term stress can lead to psychological distress, tension headaches, upset stomach and other symptoms. Acute stress is short term stress and therefore acute stress doesn't have enough time to do extensive damage, as is the case with long-term stress. The most common symptoms of acute stress are emotional distress, anger or irritability, anxiety and depression (emotions associated with stress); stomach, gut and bowel problems such as heartburn, acid stomach, flatulence, diarrhea, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome; muscular problems including tension headache, chest wall pain, jaw pain, back pain, muscular tension, tendon and ligament problems, blood pressure, heart palpitation, increased rate of heartbeat, sweaty palms, dizziness, migraine headaches, cold hands or feet and shortness of breath.

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Some people suffer from acute stress quite. They're almost always in a hurry, always late, short-tempered, tense, anxious, irritable, always too busy, always disorganized, and always live in acute stress. Their jobs or career and their personal relationships become stressful. They are the "Type A" personalities as described by cardiologists, Meter Friedman and Ray Rosenman. They have an "excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience, and a harrying sense of time urgency…. [and demonstrate a] free-floating, but well-rationalized form of hostility, and almost always a deep-seated insecurity." Type A individuals experience frequent episodes of acute stress and according to Friedman and Rosenman, are much more likely to develop coronary heart disease than Type B's, who show an opposite pattern of behavior.

Pessimists expect disaster, danger, and misfortune throughout their life and tend to often suffer from episodic acute stress. They too tend to be normally tense but they are usually worried, anxious and depressed rather than aggressive, angry and hostile.

The symptoms of episodic acute stress may include chest pains, hypertension, persistent tension headaches, heart disease, migraines and dizziness. Treating episodic acute stress requires major intervention generally requiring professional help and can take months to treat. Very often the patients of episodic acute stress blame other people or external events for their stress, believe they are living perfectly acceptable lifestyles and find no personality problems in themselves. They are intensely resistant to change and only the promise of relief from pain can keep them in treatment.

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The present day lifestyle for many people around the world creates stressful situations daily and stressful situations that are not short-lived. The individual is required to act in face of stress in form of fight or flee and this must be suppressed. Some are not able to manage their responses well. Stress, then, becomes chronic. Common chronic stressors include: bad marriages or marriages gone bad, on-going high pressure jobs, loss of a loved one, loneliness, and persistent financial pressures.

Unlike acute stress, chronic stress does not stimulate or excite the person: it sickens the body of the person and weakens the mind. It can even lead to explosive responses that can in turn destroy the very life of an individual or a whole family. This type of stress can seriously affect a person and place a tight hold on his life until the person is worn out and drained of his emotional and physical energies. Some persons can manage stress but people who suffer from chronic stress are unable to escape from a difficult situation until they give up trying. Patients who suffer from chronic stress unfortunately very often get used to the stress. In them, chronic stress finds a place for life and becomes a part of that person’s daily life. Chronic stress can kill through cancer, suicide, crime, heart attacks and stroke.

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Implications of Stress

Stress greatly impacts people both physically and mentally. Stress leads to a multitude of illnesses; it also damages interpersonal relationships, marriages and careers. Some researchers believe that stress contributes to up to 80% of major illnesses such as cancer, metabolic abnormalities and skin conditions. Stress is known to be an important factor in the development of high blood pressure and heart disease as well as cancer. Prolonged production of adrenaline during extended periods of stress can also leach the body of vitamins and minerals, leading to deficiencies that further damage the health of the individual.

Immediately after food consumption, the blood sugar in the body increases rapidly and significantly. In type 1 diabetes patients, stress will significantly affect the rate at which blood sugar drops in the body following food intake. Maintaining a high level of blood sugar in the body for prolonged hours can bring harm to the patient.

People who experience chronic stress face a great risk: the part of their brain which controls the stress response will constantly pump large amounts of stress hormones. This will greatly dampen the immune system and flood the immune cells with substances that keep telling the immune cells to stop fighting and the immune cells become programmed to remain idle and not protect the body the way they should. As a result, the onslaught of poisons that enter our body each day, the bacteria and the virus and the oxidants are given a free hand to hurt the body. The patient becomes more susceptible to infectious diseases, colds and flu. The immune system usually responds to infection by releasing several chemicals that cause inflammation and in response the adrenal glands produce cortisol. As soon as the infection is cleared, the cortisol switches off the immune and inflammatory responses. When cortisol levels remain elevated for long periods at a time, the immune system remains weakened.

If a person suffers from chronic stress, stress hormones will create constant feelings of fear, sorrow, anxiety, despondency and helplessness. People who suffer more from stress than others normally experience more depression too, as though they have less capacity for the negative effects of cortisol and for the sedative effects of cortisol byproducts, which also contribute to the overall feelings of anxiety and depression. Heightened levels of cortisol in the system cause a variety of skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, acne and hives, various types of sleep disorders (excessive sleep or insomnia), loss of sexual appetite and reduced sex drive and loss of appetite.

It is very interesting to note that stress behaves differently in different people. For some people, stress makes their immune system overactive and that results in greatly increased risks of autoimmune diseases whereby the immune body’s system attacks the body's own cells. For patients that already suffer from autoimmune diseases, stress can sometimes worsen the symptoms and therefore such persons must avoid stressful situations.

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Prolonged periods of having high levels of cortisol in the blood can also:

  1. Speed up the heart beat rate,
  2. Increase the blood pressure,
  3. Raise the blood lipid levels (cholesterol and triglyceride) and
  4. At once improve one's appetite, and encourage the accumulation of abdominal fat and lead to diabetes.

Each of these factors makes it more likely that the patient will suffer a heart attack or stroke.

Stomachaches, diarrhea or constipation are common problems during times of stress. Stress hormones can greatly increase or alternatively slow down the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach. The same hormones can also stimulate the colon, and thereby speed up bowel movements.

Typically, stress levels decline after a particular situation has been dealt with. After a person has fought, fled or escaped from the stressful situation, the cortisol and adrenaline levels in the bloodstream decline. The heart rate and blood pressure return to normal as a result and many of the body functions including the pace of breathing, metabolism and digestion resume a more normal state. As we said though, sometimes and for some people, many stressful situations bombard the individual and the body is not given the opportunity to regain normalcy. It is thrown from one state of stress into another and the physiological responses become compounded. When the body is forced to activate its stress-response system day in day out, the patient’s body will experience chaos and confusion in all its normal functions and processes including its sex drive, immune system, cardiovascular health and blood circulation. This will in turn bring about a wide range of symptoms for the patient including eating disorders leading to rapid weight loss or weight gain, problems with digestion, loss of sleep and various anxiety related problems.

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Possible causes of Stress

Excessive levels of stress hormones in the body may be the result of stress or they may be responsible for stress! Certain foods and natural health supplements can reduce the production of stress hormones.

Almost anything, any feeling or emotion, any occupation, any relationship and any situation can become a cause of stress in a person’s life. Stress can start from a physical, mental, emotional, and financial or relationship problem or fear of a problem. Any situation Stress comes about whenever an individual has inadequate capacity to handle a situation or the expectations of others or solve the problems that confront the person. Chronic stress can come from violence, from any traumatic childhood experience, from wealth or from poverty, from an overly emotional response to anything in this world, from a bad marriage, from an unsuitable high pressure job, from war and devastation and from fears of persecution.

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Treatment options for Stress

There is no generally accepted protocol for treatment of stress. There are those who believe a patient will benefit from therapy, regular exercise, change of environment or work, holidays and from the use of sedatives and hypnotic drugs. Others disagree and consider some of these as harmful. Most agree that stress can often be treated by the individual suffering from stress and most professionals in the healthcare field agree that certain foods can relax an individual. Proper diet and nutrition therefore is essential to managing stress and symptoms of stress.

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Home care and natural remedies for Stress

Hobbies, breathing exercises, taking the right natural heath supplements, good sleeping habits, a proper diet, an exciting exercise routine and meditation are all excellent ways to reduce stress. The objective should be not to get rid of stress completely because you can't get rid of stress completely in life. We must be able to achieve an optimal and manageable level of stress in our life; enough to keep us motivated and strong, but not enough to dampen our zest for life. The goal should be to control the stress levels so as to make it work for us.

Stress speeds up metabolism. Stress sometimes causes nutrients to burn away faster, inhibits the absorption of minerals and depletes the availability of certain vitamins in the body. The B vitamins are extremely important in managing stress. Stress depletes the Vitamin Bs in our body. Thiamine deficiencies are known to further damage a person’s mental state leading to memory loss and irritability. Deficiencies in B12 have been known to cause dementia in extreme cases.

Multivitamins containing vitamins A, C and E are recommended, as is selenium. This cocktail reduces the damage caused by cancer causing free radicals in the body that are produced during times of stress. Taking calcium and magnesium supplements can replace some of the minerals lost in the body by stress.

Gamma-Amino-Butyric Acid or GABA is commonly taken for managing stress. Besides being essential to health and proper brain functioning, this amino acid also acts as a mild natural tranquilizer. GABA is said to be more effective when taken in conjunction with small doses of inositol and niacinamide.

Several herbs are known to have mild sedative properties. Kava Kava, St. John’s Wort, Chamomile and Valerian root are all suggested to be effective when dealing with stress and its related difficulties. Kava Kava is banned in some countries.

5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP for short) is another naturally occurring amino acid in the body that has efficacy in treatment of stress. 5-HTP has been proven to increase the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin has a very noticeable effect on such things as pain management, sleep and emotional states, including stress. Many people take this highly powerful natural supplement for managing stress and depression, and have reported nearly miraculous effects on par with or exceeding those of pharmaceutical drugs. A controlled dose of 300mg/day is often recommended but you must consult your health care provider before talking any drugs or any natural health supplements.

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Negative stress develops when life demands more from a person than he is able to handle and when the person is faced with expectations that he feels he is unable to meet. TO help manage your stress, we suggest that you do the following:

  • Make sure the feelings, the demands and expectations that overwhelm you are not just perceived but real,
  • Ask yourself: is the source of the stress worth your trouble?
  • Create a schedule in your mind and allocate adequate time to deal with the problem that confronts you, for example from 8:30-9:00 pm daily. Faithfully keep that schedule and focus on solving your problem during that hour but if the thought of the problem returns to you outside of the appointed hour, tell that thought to go away and come back tomorrow at 8:30 pm. Try to have fun in the remaining hours of the day.
  • Respect yourself. Treat yourself once a while to gifts and good food. You are worthy.
  • Get away from the problem if you can. Change your environment to one that does not impose such heavy demands on you.
  • Learn to cope better with the expectations that currently overwhelm you. Do your best and do no more.
  • Look after yourself and your body. You can handle stress much better if you have a healthy body. Keep a healthy diet and get enough rest. Exercise regularly and schedule many activities to distract you from stressful events. Try to make new friends. Call up your old friends and loved ones.

Learn some ways and take up activities and hobbies that can relax you. Listen to relaxing and happy music. Take up meditation, prayers, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga and other practices that can calm you. Each day, at a fixed time when you have free time and again during times of high stress, try inhaling deeply and slowly, hold your breath for five seconds and exhale very slowly. Do this for three minutes a day.

Consult with one or more trusted people about your problem and get their objective views. The aim should be to maintain a positive outlook on life and our experiences in life. Take a holiday or a break from the situation or the conflict that’s causing you the tress. Analyze the situation and find out what is the real source of your stress. For example, sometimes a bad relationship is only bad because of one point of contention and there may be ways of addressing that one issue. And sometimes we see the problems greater than they really are.

There are times in life when a person cannot alone handle all that life has thrown his way. There are many people in your community who can help you. Talk to your family doctor, your clergy, a psychiatrist, a psychologist or counselor, a mental health worker or a licensed clinical social worker. Consider joining a support group and visit your local library to find one of the many wonderful self help books that have been written for people who have faced similar situations as you. Remember: you are not alone and remember the adage: “I used to feel sorry for myself because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

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