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Stress Midterm

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Stress is characterized by “a feeling of emotional or physical tension,” (Medlineplus.gov) often caused by feelings of frustration, anger or trepidation. It can be triggered by many different life factors, but it often arises from a challenge or demand that one must face. In addition, there are many different types of stress, symptoms and ways to manage it, all of which must be considered when trying to alleviate it.

There are several different types of stress, which range both in the length of time it manifests for, as well as whether it is positive or negative for a person. For example, there is a difference between chronic stress and acute stress. Chronic stress is stress that lasts for a long period of time, after which the stressor has typically gone away. Two examples of chronic stress are being trapped in an unhealthy relationship or having financial problems. (Medlineplus.gov) Acute stress is short-term feelings of stress that dissipate quickly, and typically don’t have any long-term effects. An example of acute stress would be slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting an obstacle with your car, and needing a moment to clear your head or catch your breath. (Medlineplus.gov) Additionally, there is an important difference between positive stress (medically referred to as eustress) and negative stress (medically referred to as distress). Some examples of eustress are studying for a test, or preparing for a job interview or other important, beneficial event. Distress, however, is detrimental to a person’s mental wellbeing and overall health, and can be caused by many negative factors, such as divorce, abuse/bullying or going through a traumatic event. It can cause someone to feel worn out and emotionally numb.

While everyone feels stressed sometimes, too much of any kind of stress can be a bad thing. When a person has an excessive amount of stress in their lives, and/or has an inability to cope with it, stress overload occurs. A plethora of situations can cause a person to overload on stress, such as strained relationships with loved ones, excessive work and school responsibilities or losing a position one previously held, such as a promotion. Stress overload can be diagnosed by symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse. (Divita) Additionally, burnout can also occur when a person is extremely stressed out. Burnout is defined as, “a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress” (Helpguide.org). Signs of burnout include physical symptoms such as fatigue, decreased immunity to illnesses, headaches and changes in appetite or sleep patterns, or emotional symptoms such as self-doubt, decreased motivation, excessive negativity or cynicism and detachment or isolation from others. Some people also may turn to substance addiction as a coping method, another crucial sign to look out for. (Helpguide.org)

Stress can have a number of effects on the person experiencing it, but they can differ depending on whether it is chronic or acute stress. Chronic stress often causes more serious, long-term problems than its counterpart, acute stress. It can cause serious physical health problems such as hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, acne or breakouts, and changes in a woman’s menstrual cycle. Furthermore, it can also cause emotional and mental health effects such as depression, anxiety, insomnia or fatigue. (Medlineplus.gov). Acute stress can also have effects on one’s body, but they tend to be short-term and relatively minor. These are not effects that typically warrant medical attention in a healthy person, however, they can exacerbate preexisting medical conditions, or become worse over time. When a person experiences an episode of acute stress, it can cause a temporary increase in heart rate, as well as respiratory symptoms such as hyperventilation (rapid, shallow breathing), shortness of breath or feelings of constriction in the throat or chest. (American Psychological Association) If these problems persist after the stressor has dissipated, however, one should visit a medical professional.

While stress is an inevitable factor of life that cannot be avoided, one can take actions to cope with it, and prevent it from having effects on their life or health. However, some of these methods are healthy, while others may compound the problems and ultimately cause even more stress in the long run. For example, some may turn to substance abuse as a solution to their troubles. Alcoholism is a particularly prevalent stress coping method. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health, tracks the comorbid relationship between chronic stress and excessive drinking. They have found that, “men and women who have reported higher levels of stress tend to drink more” (NIAAA/NIH). Additionally, they discovered that “men tended to turn to alcohol as a means for dealing with stress more often than women” (NIAAA/NIH), as well as that “for those who reported at least six stressful incidents, the percentage of men binge drinking was about 1.5 times that of women, and AUDs [alcohol use disorders] among men were 2.5 times higher than women” (NIAAA/NIH). This disparity between the sexes is intriguing, but the NIAAA/NIH does not currently have an explanation as to why it exists. Alcoholism amongst military veterans who have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is unfortunately a common occurrence as well, and “has been found in 14 to 22 percent of veterans returning from recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” (NIAAA/NIH). Another substance that is commonly used in excess as a coping method for stress is tobacco. While it does cause short-term stress relief, over long periods of time tobacco produces the opposite effect, causing new problems for the user. Smoking cigarettes can cause dependency on nicotine (an addictive chemical in tobacco that acts as a stimulant), and can actually increase anxiety and stress, instead of relieving it. This is because “nicotine creates an immediate sense of relaxation so people smoke in the belief that it reduces stress and anxiety. This feeling of relaxation is temporary and soon gives way to withdrawal symptoms and increased cravings” (Mentalhealth.org). Additional symptoms of smoking can include irritability, shortness of breath, headaches, as well as long-term respiratory disorders such as emphysema and COPD (chronic obstructed pulmonary disease), many of which are also caused by stress alone (Mentalhealth.org).

There are, however, many healthy, effective methods of coping with stress. One method of coping, for example, is getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked to causing increased feelings of stress, but inversely, stress in one’s life can cause them to sleep less. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that, “thirty-nine percent of teens with higher reported stress levels (8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale) feel even more stressed if they do not get enough sleep” (APA), as well as that, “one-third of teens (35 percent) report that stressed caused them to lie-awake at night in the past month” (APA). This issue can be rectified by avoiding known stressors, such as homework, before bed, as well as getting enough sleep per night. It is recommended that teens get 8.5-9.25 hours of sleep per night, while adults should get approximately 8 hours of sleep per night. (APA) Another method of managing stress is to eat a well-balanced diet. Like improper amounts of sleep, an unhealthy diet can both cause and be caused by high stress levels. A healthy, stress reducing diet should include complex carbohydrates, which satiate one’s hunger and increase levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that increases feelings of well-being), as well as foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, cantaloupe and broccoli. Vitamin C can decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, making one feel less anxious and stressed out. (Webmd.com) An additional method of stress management is getting enough exercise. Physical activity decreases stress levels by releasing endorphins (neurotransmitters that increase feelings of positivity), a phenomonon often referred to as a “runner’s high.” An additional benefit of exercising frequently is that it forces one to concentrate on the physical task at hand, instead of their stressor, producing an effect similar to meditation.

This can also help decrease one’s stress levels. (Mayoclinic.org) One can also manage stress by taking vacations or rest periods away from school or work, which present a variety of stressors. For example, the Mind Body Center at the University of Pittsburgh found that, “leisure activities – including taking vacations – contributed to higher positive emotional levels and less depression,” (Healthnet.com) and a study in Canada “of nearly 900 lawyers found that taking vacations helped alleviate job stress.” (Healthnet.com) Considering that occupational stressors are a major source of tension for many people, this method may provide significant relief to many people. Practicing yoga has also been proven to decrease stress levels and help people relax. It can help decrease heart and respiratory rates, and encourage one to become more mindful, helping take the focus away from their stressors. For example, “in a national survey, 85% of people who did yoga reported that it helped them relieve stress,” (Psychologytoday.com) and Harvard University reports that, “yoga practices help increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly.” (Harvard Health Publishing) Yoga also helps promote physical health, and is a component of a healthy, active lifestyle, touting many of the same benefits as more intense forms of exercise. Finally, avoiding commonplace substances that are known to increase stress can also help one mitigate stress. Many people start their day with coffee or other caffeinated drinks, but caffeine has been shown to increase stress levels by interacting with the body’s endocrine system, which produces and regulates hormones. For example, it can raise cortisol levels, and can hinder the absorption of adenosine, a hormone that helps calm the body. Caffeine also encourages the body to produce adrenaline, a hormone that is released as a part of the “fight or flight” response in threatening or intense situations. This gives the person a temporary burst of energy, but later causes them to “crash,” decreasing productivity and alertness, while increasing fatigue. Additionally, caffeine acts as a stimulant, which can inhibit sleep, and thus increase stress levels. (Verywellmind.com) While one does not need to cut out caffeine completely, decreasing their consumption of it both in frequency and quantity, as well as avoiding it during the afternoon, all can help decrease their overall stress levels.

My personal stressors come from a variety of places. My main stressor is my schoolwork. I am taking a lot of challenging classes that require a lot of effort both in and outside of the classroom. While I am managing it well, it is very tiring, demanding and can physically drain me at times. I deal with school stress by being present, paying attention in class, requesting help when I need it, and keeping ahead of my work. I also can have trouble balancing schoolwork with extracurriculars and leisure time. I manage this by planning my week out ahead of time, so I stay on schedule. I complete assignments in order of what is due first, rather than waiting to do it all at once, or at the last minute. This helps keep me feeling like I am taking charge of my responsibilities, as well as working efficiently. Stress can also be caused by my home life. I have had a lot of conflict with my family in the past year, and it has caused me a ton of stress. Sometimes I have felt as if I cannot go on any longer, or that I have no way to escape. I was able to manage it by visiting a therapist, which helped immensely. I also had a long discussion with my parents about effective communication, as that is where most of the conflict between them stems from. Things have gotten better and I am feeling noticeably less stressed out and edgy at home. I also have noticed that I am less irritable and am able to concentrate on tasks more, now that I am not as stressed out.

Even though I am feeling less stressed now, throughout my research on this topic I have discovered a number of new stress-management strategies that I would like to implement in my life. I would like to get more sleep at nights, as I only tend to get around 7-7.5 hours per night. I am trying to go to bed earlier, relax before bedtime, and also put away electronics and other distractions earlier in the evening. I would also like to increase the amount of physical activity I get, as when I do work out it makes me feel noticeably happier, and it increases my confidence and self-esteem. It is a great distraction from stressors, and makes me feel powerful. Finally, I’d also like to limit my consumption of caffeine this year. I drink a cup of black coffee nearly every day in the morning, but mostly because I enjoy the taste and I tend to just do it almost automatically, out of habit. I don’t think I’m addicted to it, as I can function in the mornings without it, and don’t feel stressed because of it. However, I am interested in cutting back just to see if there are any significant effects that I am unaware of. I am hoping that these methods will help me have a more relaxed, less stressful 2019, as 2018 was the most hectic year of my life.

Stress can have both positive and negative effects on a person, but when in excess, it is almost universally detrimental to a person’s emotional and physical health. However, once one learns how to manage it in a healthy way, without the use of short-term solutions, they can learn to clear their mind, decrease or even eliminate their stressors, and live a more peaceful life.

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