Why you need to learn to manage your stress
According to the SA Profmed stress index, more people took time off from work in 2017 due to stress-related illness than in previous years. Dr Una Geldenhuys, a GP at Mediclinic Newcastle, weighs in on how stress impacts your health and offers ways to manage it.
Stress is your body’s natural defence against danger – it pumps your body with adrenalin and other chemicals, equipping you for the ‘flight-or-fight’ reaction: to physically face the challenge or to flee to safety.
Anything that causes a change in circumstance for your brain can be a stressor – whether it’s a sudden noise, your workload, a race, traffic or emotional trauma.
Bear in mind that not all stress is negative. A certain amount of stress is important for your mental and physical health – you need it to be motivated and to keep productive and energised. This positive stress, also known as eustress, is short-term. Your brain perceives this as a positive challenge.
Negative stress, also known as distress, occurs when your brain perceives the stressor as overwhelming. This increases anxiety decreases performance and can lead to mental and physical problems.
What happens when you’re stressed
In reaction to any stressor, your body immediately undergoes physical changes:
- you produce increased amounts of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline (all of which quicken your pulse, raise your blood pressure and increase your breathing).
- your muscles tense and you shift into a heightened state of awareness.
Dr Una Geldenhuys, a GP at Mediclinic Newcastle, explains that the way you react to stress depends on your genetics, your immediate circumstances and your previous experiences.
“One person’s stressful situation might be another’s simple challenge – one person might not be able to cope and will break down, while another person might be motivated and energised by that same stressor,” she says. “It all depends on each person’s perception of the situation, and whether they have the resources to cope.”
Symptoms and effects of long-term stress
Over time, unmanaged stress can result in severe symptoms, chronic health conditions and even death. Here are some of the effects of long-term stress on your body:
- panic attacks
- chest pain
- nervous twitches
- high blood pressure
- anxiety and depression
- sleeping difficulties
- sexual dysfunction
- skin complications like acne or eczema
- metabolic syndrome and diabetes
- gastro-intestinal problems and irritable bowel syndrome
- heart disease and heart attack
Dr Geldenhuys’ top 10 tips for managing stress
- Do your best to live a healthy, well-balanced and relaxed lifestyle.
- Exercise regularly, eat healthily and don’t use alcohol or drugs to relieve stress.
- Take up a hobby or activity you find stimulating and enjoyable.
- Cultivate a positive attitude toward life.
- Prevent work overload as much as possible.
- Know your body’s stress symptoms and seek help when you feel out of control.
- Talk to someone you trust. A family member, friend or counsellor may offer good advice or another perspective to lighten your perception of your situation.
- Make sure you get regular and sufficient good quality sleep.
- Prayer or regular meditation can be helpful.
Seek professional help from a psychologist or doctor if you are unable to cope.