What is stress?Stress is a consequence of experiencing pressure or tension. It is a physical reaction which gets our body ready in a state of preparedness. Stress can be caused by many different things in life: work, hobbies, family, friends,... It thus does not necessarily need to come from work. Stress should also be separated from pressure. Pressure namely considers the amount of work/tasks which need to be finished correctly within a certain period of time. Pressure can thus be a cause of stress, but is not the exact same thing. Stress namely is how we deal with this pressure. On the basis of the previous explanation, we can differentiate between two types of stress: healthy stress and unhealthy stress. With healthy stress, we mean stress which pushes us to perform better. Some namely need that extra push sometimes. Healthy stress does not rule our lives, and will make it so that we do our work in a better way. With unhealthy stress we consider stress which works against us. It will make it so that we no longer perform as well as before. It affects the way we function. It only becomes pathological when this stress also starts to affect other areas in life.
A scientific view of stressStress has existed as long as mankind has. The function of stress has changed throughout the years, though. In prehistoric times, stress helped people to survive. Stress only existed in the shape of the 'fight-or-flight' response. This means that people in dangerous situations will either fight, or will flee. Stress triggers this response, which can help people to escape from a dangerous situation. In this situation, the body starts to secrete adrenaline and cortisol. This latter hormone is also called the stress hormone. Then, our blood pressure increases, our muscles tense up, our sense become sharper, and our pain tolerance increases. All of this will make it so that we can fight or flee more quickly and in a better way. In prehistoric times stress thus had a useful function. This 'fight-or-flight' response still exists nowadays. People are namely genetically predisposed to showing stress when one is in a dangerous situation. Because of societal improvements in the past hundred years people hardly ever are in dangerous situations anymore. We therefore need this 'fight-or-flight' response less and less. Stress then therefore got a different function in our society.
Causes of excessive stressWhen does someone have excessive stress? Stress can become too much if the person cannot deal with the stress anymore. When stress starts to dominate one's life. To explain excessive stress in a better way, we use the terms carrying load and carrying capacity. Carrying load is the burden which one experiences coming from certain situations. Examples of carrying load are a relationship ending, a fight in the family, being understaffed at work,... Carrying capacity, on the other hand, are positive factors in our life, which support us and make us become more flexible. They make it so that we can handle more and that we feel better. Examples of carrying capacity are humor, a good relationship, sports,... In general, carrying load and carrying capacity should be balanced. They should balance each other out. The positive things will make it so that the negative things do not have such a large impact in our life. We can also imagine this as a scale, with carrying load at one side and carrying capacity at the other side. This illustrates healthy stress. Stress is present, but because of the positive things in life, the negative influence of this stress will not be so large. It can, however, also be so that we deliver poorer quality work, do not sleep well, find it difficult to remember things,... These are the influences of negative stress. Excessive, negative stress occurs when there is much more load than capacity to deal with this load. The capacity is then too little do carry the load of this stress. The load is also larger because this stress has an influence on our daily functioning. This, too, we can illustrate at the hand of a scale.
You see that the weight is mainly found in the carrying load and that there hardly is anything at the side of the carrying capacity.
Symptoms of stressStress has a large impact on the daily life and functioning. Below, we will shortly sum up the symptoms of negative stress. The symptoms are divided up into physical, psychological, and cognitive symptoms.
- Constant fatigue: You are constantly tired. Even when you get a lot of sleep, you feel tired. The stress requires a lot from your body, and that is why you will nearly always feel fatigued. Stress consumes a lot of your energy, and this combined with sleeping poorly will lead you to feel more and more fatigued.
- Pain and disease: Because you have stress, it can be so that your body and your immune system grow weaker. Because of the overload which is caused by stress, you can start suffering from pain in different places. Examples are muscular ache, headache, stomach ache,... Furthermore, you will become ill more easily.Stress namely uses a lot of energy which the body should use, meaning your body becomes weaker and you are more vulnerable to diseases.
- Sleeplessness: You will notice that you no longer sleep as well. You find it difficult to fall asleep and to sleep through the night. It often is so that you start to use medication before you go to bed, because you notice that you can no longer do it on your own. Sleeping through the night is also a problem. You sleep in a more shallow way than you usually would, and therefore get the feeling that you only have very short nights.
- Issues with food: People with stress often feel like their stomach is knotted. They will thus often eat less. This can worsen the fatigue. Also, stress influences the digestion of your food. It can therefore be so that you develop stomach and bowel complaints.
- Heart palpitations: Because your body secretes the stress hormone cortisol, your body will constantly be tense. With this, we think of an increased heart rate, tense muscles, and increased blood circulation.
- Addictive substances: It often happens that people with stress look for ways to reduce their stress, and then end up with addictive substances. For example, smoking and even smoking weed can be ways which people use to try to get rid of stress. Here, we should note that these substances do not work. Research even shows that people who smoke are more stressed than people who do not smoke.
- Being unable to relax: Because the body secretes cortisol, you feel like you cannot relax, neither physically nor psychologically. Especially long-term stress can make it so that you become psychologically fatigued. You are namely constantly busy and take but a few breaks. When you then do take a break, your body is still in some sort of overdrive move, which means that you cannot relax. It can also be so tat worrying causes you to be unable to get any psychological rest. You are constantly thinking of the tasks which cause you stress, by going through them in your head and considering which parts you still need to work on.
- Irritability: Because you bite off more than you can chew, it can be so that you become irritable after some time. This mainly is caused by the feeling that you do not get any rest. You have the feeling that you are constantly supposed to be ready for action, and can then respond in a very irritated way when people ask you something.
- Somber moods and/or crying fits. After a while, your stress can become too much for you, and then it can be so that you start having somber moods or even crying fits. You feel like you are psychologically exhausted, and you no longer know what to do. You will have such moods more and more often if the stress is not dealt with.
- No longer being able to enjoy things: You feel like you can no longer relax, and that will also give you the feeling that you are unable to relax. Everything is decided by the stress, so there is less and less time for relaxation and fun things. Often, when it is time to actually do fun things, you are still pre-occupied with the tasks which cause the stress. You find it difficult to shut down your brain.
- Less confidence: Because of the excess of tasks and stress, it can be so that you start to doubt yourself. It can be so that, because of the amount of work, other parts of your job start to suffer under the stress. You are no longer as detailed with tasks as you were in the past, or you cannot take on as many tasks within a certain time frame like you used to be able to. This can cause you to start doubting yourself.
- Social isolation: Because of the lack of confidence and the stress, which enters different parts of life, you might stop looking for as much social contact as you used to. When you do have time off, you prefer to spend it on your own. You also have the feeling that you are unable to enjoy things anymore. Because of this, you will look for less social contact. This can lead to social isolation.
- Lesser performance and increase in mistakes: Because you are preoccupied with your stress, your performance becomes poorer. This goes both for timeliness and amount of performance. Stress namely starts to make it so that you find it difficult to think and that you get issues with focus. Because your mind is no longer ordered, you cannot work in an orderly fashion anymore, either. This way, more and more mistakes will be made in your work.
- Loss of focus: Because stress mashes up all your thoughts, it will also become more difficult to keep everything orderly, and to remember everything. You have a lot on your mind and this can lead to problems with your concentration. You find it difficult to work on one project for a long period of time, which is something you used to be able to do. In extreme cases, it can even be so that you find it difficult to follow a conversation.
- Memory problems: Because of the chaos in your mind, memory issues become more and more common. You find it more difficult to remember things than you used to. You will also find that you take in things in your long-term memory more slowly than you used to do.
- Worrying: You forget more easily, do not know what to focus on, and mix everything up. This can cause reason to worry. Even before these symptoms occur, you will worry. You will think of things such as: 'Have I done it well enough?' 'Is there going to be a lot of work to do when I go to my job on Monday?' You will worry about things which cause you stress.
- Indecisiveness: Because you no longer feel so good, you will find that it is not as easy to take decisions as it used to be. You doubt yourself and your self-esteem reduces. Especially long-term decisions are ones you start to run from.