The Big “S” and how to beat it

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“I’m very stressed, ya.” All of us have heard something to this effect from a friend or a family member, or said it ourselves.  Stress affects all of us at various points of time in our lives. Need to submit an assignment in 24 hours? Appearing for an important exam?  A family member suffering from an illness? All these are examples of stressful situations. Stress has become a part of our daily lives. So, how harmful is stress? Is all stress bad? What happens when stress goes beyond a certain level? And what can we do to counter stress or its effects? Read on to know.

What is stress? Simply put, stress is the human body’s reaction to any real or imagined event. In most cases, the event is something that is perceived as negative or something that needs the person to change.  For example, for a student appearing for exams, the amount of studies that need to be done or the possibility of performing badly in the exam creates stress. To put it even more simply, stress is physical and mental tension. The event causing the stress is perceived as a threat by the body and hence it goes into the fight or flight mode. 

From the explanation so far, it seems all stress is bad. Well, not really. There is something called “eustress”, which literally means positive stress. A little stress gives rise to motivation, improves performance, helps overcome a difficult situation and leads to growth. Taking the earlier example of exam stress- it motivates one to study hard and do well.  For that matter, even physical exercise is a stress on the body- but it is eustress, which ultimately has a positive impact on the body. 

However, when stress goes beyond a point such that it hampers performance instead of enhancing it, it becomes negative stress. For the most part, when we say “stress” we refer to this negative form of stress. Stress is problematic if is too intense or is continuously present. Some examples of situations causing intense and/or chronic stress could be a dysfunctional family, relationship break up or divorce, death of a close family member, failure in an important exam, chronic or serious illness, poverty or financial difficulties or even life events such as getting married, moving to a different place/country etc.  

 Some signs of intense or chronic stress are feeling restless, increased heart rate or palpitations, sleep disturbances, eating too much or too little, being irritable, inability to focus on tasks leading to procrastination etc. Stress can also worsen existing mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and may even lead to substance use/abuse.  

Quite naturally, the next question is, how to manage stress? Often, stress creeps into our lives silently and we see it later than sooner. But being aware and identifying the signs of stress is the first step towards countering it.  There are certain factors that may determine your response to stress. For example, someone who is naturally optimistic or someone with a good sense of humour may find situations less stressful than someone who is not. However, there are specific things that you can do to reduce stress. A few are as follows

  1. Build your support system: There are people who are lucky to have extremely supportive friends and family members, and if you are one of those, that’s great! But often, people do not know that they are stressed and need help. It is important to reach out to trustworthy friends, cousins or relatives in order to build support for yourself. Social support is one of the best buffers against stress.
  2. Get in that workout: There is plenty of scientific research that has proved beyond doubt that exercise of any kind helps relieve stress as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression. Exercise, among other things, releases endorphins which are also called happy hormones, which elevate one’s mood almost immediately. Whether it is a jog, a long walk or a session at the gym, any kind of exercise helps relieve stress.
  3. Relax!: This is not a random piece of advice. There are relaxation techniques which are known to help relieve stress. These techniques include meditation, yoga, deep nreathing etc. The principle behind these techniques is that the human body cannot remain in two polarizing states at once. This means, it cannot be anxious/stressed and relaxed at the same time. These relaxation techniques activate the body’s relaxation response when practiced thereby bringing down the stress. 
  4. Get enough rest: Inadequate sleep or irregular patterns of sleep can worsen the stress one is experiencing. It is therefore important to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. It helps if you sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
  5. Get professional help: There are times when the stress is too much to take. If you feel that it is becoming unmanageable and creating significant problems in day to day functioning, you should consider seeing a mental health professional (Psychiatrist or Psychologist). 
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