Stress is a spectrum. And it’s also a process, not an endpoint. We feel stressed when expectations from the outside world don’t match with the resources we have. How we think about a challenging situation can have a big impact on how we experience it. Stress is a natural response to certain environments, and if we learn to make the most of it, it can become a powerful motivator. However, stress is also like a stealthy, invading ninja; it can creep in and set up shop in your head without as much as a hello. Rude, much? Learn to recognise the signs and what you can do if that stress overstays its welcome.
What does stress look like?
Everyone stresses out differently, but some common signs are:
- Emotional discomfort: this can be feelings of anxiety, depression, tension or anger.
- Mental struggle: this can show up as forgetfulness or poor concentration. Other signs include apathy, despair or indecisiveness.
- Unhealthy behaviour: sometimes stress manifests in unhelpful ways, like increased drinking or smoking, isolating yourself, trouble sleeping, lying to friends or family, cheating on exams or taking up gambling.
What stress does to your body
Stress is supposed to be a short-term response to danger; it was what helped our prehistoric ancestors avoid becoming mammoth chow. It’s also what can help during a job interview. Or when we run into that ex before our coffee-fuelled superpowers kick in. When your body senses danger, it releases stress chemicals that help you stay alert and focused until the danger passes. But when stress is a constant state of being, and these chemicals are ever-present in your system, the body can break down. Some long-term effects of stress are:
- Tension headaches and migraines.
- Trouble breathing, hyperventilation or panic attacks.
- Heart problems and high blood pressure.
- Skin and hair conditions, such as acne or hair loss.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Fertility problems for both men and women.
- Mental health problems.
When stress leads to burnout, anxiety or depression
When stress is left to run wild, it can turn into burnout or a mental illness such as an anxiety disorder or depression. An anxiety disorder is ongoing and can affect your daily life.
Some anxiety disorders include:
- Social anxiety disorder: fear of other’s judgements or demands.
- Agoraphobia (or other specific phobias): fear of public places and leaving your home, fear of flying or small spaces.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): a disorder that follows a real and distressing event such as natural disaster, violent death, assault or war.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): an uncontrollable need to repetitively perform a specific routine or think about certain thoughts obsessively.
Untreated anxiety disorders can lead to depression, which in itself is not unusual. About 17% of people in Australia will suffer from depression at some time in their life. This is even more common if you’re a woman or over 40 years old. Depression is linked to suicide; the annual suicide rate for people with depression is 3-4 times higher than that of other mental disorders.
The good news is that anxiety is very treatable, and treatment is easily accessible. There are many different psychological and medication options, and a mix of both generally lead to sustainable positive outcomes.
What you can do to manage stress
First, prevention is always better. Regular exercise, making time to relax and eating healthy foods are all effective ways to avoid acute stress. Second, learn to nip it in the bud. Recognise your personal stress signs then engage yourself in positive ways. This can be hanging out with friends or meditating, listening to live music or going on a nature walk.
When you feel stressed, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the problem I’m facing?
- Can I do anything to change it?
- If yes, what can I do?
- If not, the following ideas can be very helpful:
When nothing is working
Practising mindfulness has been proven to reduce stress. Using an app like Headspace can help motivate and track your practice. It may also help to read up on stress so you have a better understanding of what you’re dealing with. No better way to tame a beast than to get to know it first!
If you feel that the stress has become too unruly, talk to a health professional. This can be tough, but it’s very important. This article might give you some ideas on how to talk about your mental health. Once you’re ready, make an appointment with Swinburne’s on-campus counsellors. They’re well-equipped to help you and every session is 100% private and confidential. No questions asked.