Mental Health: Stress

Stress is a biological response in the brain due to adverse challenges that affecting somebody. Stress has a negative consequence both in the short and long-term on somebody’s mental and physical health.

Causes

Anything can cause someone to be stressed – it depends on the individual and the specific circumstances. Some possible causes could then be losing a job, driving , socialising or being stranded due to a cancelled flight. Most things that an individual perceives a threat to their well-being can be triggers of stress and reduced their sense of control. When people become fearsome of imagined futures, this can cause stress. These are ideas connected with uncertainty and this can itself be stressful. The cognitive gap, whereby there is a difference between how someone views themselves and their actual actions, can cause stress.

Conflicts can easily arise in workplaces environments – especially where mutli-disciplinary individuals/teams need to cooperate with different agendas to serve an overall goal. For example, an operations person may not agree with the decision of a salesperson and conflict arises. Sometimes individuals are put under too much demands, which can cause stress. Using the same example, the operations employee may not be able to deliver what a salesperson promised and this inability to fulfil that promise can cause stress. When people aren’t able to do what they want (e.g. because of a workplace policy), this can cause stress. Rightly or wrongly, it does not matter: It is the mismatch between an individual’s perceived needs or entitlement and the actuality that may cause frustration, which mounts toward stress.

High pressure workplaces (e.g. Air Traffic Control) can cause high demands and stress. Workplaces that have reduced freedom (e.g. a factory line) can cause stress and the same effect can be observed as a result of micro-management. Poor support networks in a workplace can lead to stress and this can be a lack of formalised processes (e.g. HR) or can arise for an individual with poor day-day relationships with colleagues. A workplace that is undergoing a lot of changes (e.g. acquisitions and mergers) can create an environment of change, which may cause stress.

How stress affects people

Stress can be useful. Stress can raise someone’s energy via, for example, hormonal changes. This could allow you to be more focused on an activity. Stress can provide a baseline motivation e.g. toward completing an assignment. Stress can help people become ‘sharper’ and better able to recall relevant information. Stress can also, temporarily, improve cardio-vascular efficiency – great for an athlete.

Stress can be harmful. Physical symptoms may be caused such as palpitations or perspiration but long-term affects can be observed such as poor sleep, poor diet and poor social engagement. Long-term stress is a significant risk factor for conditions such as stroke or myocardial infraction. Stress also ‘wears the body down’ without readily repairing damaged cells and tissue.

Sexual dysfunction is a symptom of stress that may present as reduced libido (or increased) and have the affect of erectile problems. Gastrointestinal issues may arise due to poor diet (e.g. eating heavily sugary foods) and poor bowel movements may result. The longer the stress. the more pronounced symptoms become and certainly stress can lead to general aches/pains and headaches; through to coronary heart disease.

In 2015, I was under a lot of pressure with my workplace exacerbated by difficulties in a relationship and trying to balance commitments outside of work. My social life gave way to these other commitments and I found it very challenging: My mind was constantly pre-occupied with trying to get everything sorted out – I was staying up late and constantly busy/tired. My diet was very poor and I was over-eating (sort of comfort eating) a lot. I found it hard to make day-day decisions (e.g. what toothpaste to buy) and struggled socially. I felt very isolated and this increasing sense of urgency all the time – I could not relax.

People may feel hurried when subjected to stress. They may feel worried about the future or the possibility of failing and in the long-term this can result in somebody feeling disinterested in activities or socialising. People may feel very serious when subject to stress and not able to relax and ‘have a laugh’ as often. There can be a feeling of isolation when stressed (either ‘selfimposed’ or due to the circumstances) and this can mean that someone feels they can’t share their concerns with others.

Stress can have many somatic affects on an individual. It can cause a hyper-sensitivity to environmental stimuli – manifest as allergic reactions. It can cause changes in blood pressure and hear-rate which can affect control of other pre-existing conditions (e.g. diabetes) and can cause GI issues as well as headaches or pre-dispose the individual to migraines or ulceration.

Demands of Daily Life

Internal demands originate form within and can be attributed to a person’s personality. This is the summation of a person’s understanding and perspectives on the world. Some personalities can predispose some people to stress more. For example, somebody could have a more ‘addictive personality’ and engage in gambling, resulting in poor self-esteem and the stress of financial problems. Somebody may be less organised and find stress arises from misplacing things often.

It is important to be mindful that external demands may also originate from internal demands – although a relationship may be regarded as an external demand, problems within that relationship could originate from mental health issues. Some external demands can financial pressures (e.g. paying for educational needs of dependants) through to sudden changes of environment (job, school, house).

Managing Stress

Exercise can be useful as it provides some emotional stability (like a form of meditation whereby the mind is preoccupied). If stress arises from problems, the problems should be resolved, enlisting the help of others where necessary. It is important to recognise what is and isn’t within one’s realistic control. Spending time with other people can be a useful way of sharing our emotional state by gaining reaffirmation. Sometimes, those people can help us resolve issues as well.

It is important to avoid habitual negative behaviour such as entertaining addictions such as smoking tobacco or taking drugs. In the face of adversity, people can resort to familiar patterns of behaviour (or thoughts) which are not necessarily productive in reducing stress; or even exacerbate stress. For example, somebody may watch a lot of TV in order to avoid thinking about a financial crises on the horizon. This may in itself cause the crises to worsen.

A stress diary can be maintained to have a reliable method of documenting stressful episodes – often we fail to do these things in hindsight. By documenting certain characteristics of the situation (company, activity) and internal state (emotions, time of day), it is then possible, with hindsight, to review and identify any patterns. These patterns can then be related to prospective triggers. Strategies could then be employed to either reduce exposure to those circumstances (e.g. avoid a certain individual) or better equip oneself (preferable in most occasions) to manage the stress arising from those scenarios.

In the workplace, there can be HR advisers, line managers or trade unions that enable people to get information and help to solve problems. Sometimes people just need reassurance or respite and family members or friends can provide emotional support. More formalised means of support can be available such as consultation with a GP or use of an Occupational Therapist or counsellor.

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