Jennifer Wright, Clinical Psychologist

Individuals have different tolerance levels for stress, but most of us know when we are going through a stressful period. Our muscles become tense, our hearts beat faster and our palms can feel sweaty. Emotionally, we might feel intolerant, irritable and unpredictable. The effects of stress are evident in our physical reactions, our emotions and our behaviours. Stress is created by the way we see the world (internal sources of stress), and the stressful events in our lives (external sources of stress).

Internal Sources of Stress

The way we perceive events and other people's behaviours can lead to high stress levels. If you are caught in a traffic jam, you could see it as an opportunity to ponder a problem or to listen to a CD. Or you could immediately blame other drivers, sound the horn, feel you are wasting time, and worry that you'll be late for work.

External Sources of Stress

Examples of major external sources of stress are a dying spouse or relative, a major car accident or a house move. We can't always be in control, particularly of other people. Learning to determine what control, if any, we have in situations is an important first step in managing stress. If we can't change an external stressor, we need to let go and perhaps change the way we perceive it. If we can change an external stressor, it's best to do so mindfully, and without delay.

Beliefs and Behaviour

External stressors can present us with challenges, but our perceptions and beliefs determine our reactions to the challenges and our subsequent feelings about ourselves.

Beliefs have a great impact on how we react to stressors. We can learn to mindfully examine and modify our beliefs and self-talk, which can reduce our stress levels and help us to feel more empowered.

How we behave is also important. People turn to alcohol, cigarettes, prescribed medication and/or illegal drugs to help manage their stress. Destructive behaviours can exacerbate our problems and reduce our long-term ability to cope.

Our beliefs and behavioural responses are usually long-term, habitual patterns, sometimes developed as coping strategies in childhood. It is difficult to become aware of our automatic responses. It's best to learn to develop more appropriate responses to stressors, rather than simply react and feel overwhelmed by them.

Psychologist Albert Ellis has identified unrealistic beliefs that cause anxiety:

  • The belief that it is an absolute necessity to have the love and approval, all the time, of peers, family and friends. It's more realistic to believe that your self-esteem is not based on pleasing others. Seeking approval takes you away from who you are. It's best to accept yourself, whether or not other people accept you.
  • The desire to be unfailingly competent and perfect at all times. Mistakes call for correction and learning, not judgment and punishment. Your self-worth is not based only on what you achieve.
  • The belief that external factors cause the most human misery. Your problem can be influenced by events outside your control, but your experience is based on your thoughts, beliefs and behaviours.
  • The desire that events should always turn out the way that you want them to, and that people should always do what you want. It’s disappointing when things aren’t the way you’d like them to be, but you can cope. You can choose happiness, despite what occurs around you.
  • The belief that the past (especially negative experiences) will control what will happen in the future. Your problems may have begun in the past, but your attitude is under your control. You can improve or change your life if you look at things in a different way.

Stress Management Strategies

  1. Learn to recognise early stress signals. Signs of stress can be physical (headaches, backaches, tiredness), emotional (irritability), mental (reduced concentration), and behavioural (turning to alcohol, getting angry or withdrawing).
  2. Think rationally. Be mindful of your perceptions of events and other people to avoid catastrophising, or having unrealistic expectations.
  3. Check your level of control in situations. Change what you can change, if it will help. Taking action in some situations can create more problems. But procrastination can lead to feelings of powerlessness.
  4. Exercise daily. If possible, 30-40 minutes of aerobic activity, such as a brisk walk, swimming or cycling can prevent stress levels from rising.
  5. Learn and practise a relaxation technique. Meditation, yoga and tai chi have been shown to help reduce stress levels.
  6. Press the pause button. Small breaks where you relax and focus on your breath takes your mind to the present moment, and away from stressful thoughts. Eric Harrison’s book The 5-Minute Meditator has many excellent tips for relaxing in a short amount of time.
  7. Redefine free time. Others may want your time, but sometimes it’s best to find space for yourself.
  8. Put effort into relationships that are important to you. Prioritise friends who support you being yourself, without judgement.
  9. Use a diary to manage your time. Remember to include 'me time'. Say no when you need to.
  10. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes we can learn a lot about ourselves, and have more fun, if we seek and accept the help of other people.
  11. Recognise that stress can be managed. If you are feeling overwhelmed, develop and practise coping responses.

Listed below are some of the main symptoms of stress.

Physical/Physiological

  • Pain resulting from increased muscle tension (eg head/back/neck ache)
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Diarrhoea/constipation/irritable bowel syndrome
  • Jaw pain/bruxism (teeth grinding)
  • Dizziness
  • Appetite disturbance
  • Sweating
  • Indigestion, nausea and/or vomiting
  • General fatigue
  • Compromised immune system (eg frequent colds)
  • Rapid or difficult breathing
  • Chest pains
  • Sleep disturbance
  • A change in interest in sexual activity. Some people lose interest and others use sex to release tension.
  • Trembling and/or nervous tics

Behavioural

  • Sleep disturbances (insomnia, early awakening, excessive sleeping)
  • Increased alcohol and other drug use
  • Compulsive over-eating
  • Mood swings
  • Violent or aggressive outbursts
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding others
  • Chronic procrastination
  • Foot or finger tapping
  • Nail biting
  • Crying
  • Inappropriate laughter

Mental/thinking

  • Reduced concentration
  • Confused or irrational thinking
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Racing thoughts
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Loss of memory
  • Negative thinking
  • Blaming others/defensiveness
  • Excessive worrying
  • Thoughts of suicide

Emotional

  • Fear of losing control
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Frustration and anger
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Paranoia
  • Feelings of alienation from others