Stress is a common feature in all our lives. It's often seen as a negative emotion, but stress plays an important role in our survival. It helps us face threats and dangerous situations, gets us motivated and can even make us perform better. We all react to and cope with stress in different ways, and it's these differences that determine whether or not stress becomes a negative force in your life.
Stress is essentially an imbalance between the demands put on you and your ability to cope with these demands. Pressure can come from all sorts of places - from moving house to money worries to relationship problems. But most often, the biggest culprit is work. According to the Samaritans, one in five people get stressed on a daily basis, and the Health and Safety Executive reports that a third of all work-related illness is due to stress.
So what's going on in your body when you get stressed? Recognising a threat, your brain starts to release hormones. Your body responds by increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, heart and brain. This ensures that you are primed to think and act quickly. It's called the "fight or flight" response; your body is ready to fight off the threat or run away from it. Once the emergency is over, your body returns to a state of calm.
Short bursts of stress every now and again will not do you any real harm. However, if it's prolonged or you have frequent bouts, your body will find it harder and harder to recover. This can lead to chronic stress. Mentally, you may:
Physically, you may:
Any conditions you already have (such as eczema or asthma), may get worse as well. Chronic stress can lead to serious health problems like high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and reduced immunity.
The best way to deal with stress is to get back in control of your life. There are steps you can take to do this:
If you are still struggling, see your GP. Stress is rarely treated with medication, but he or she will be able to give you valuable support and advice, and if necessary, refer you for counselling.
Publication date: September 2008
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