Recognising and managing stress

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines stress as ‘a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation’. But while stress is never a permanent, fixed emotional state it is, however, an inevitable part of life. In this article, we'll explore the different aspects of stress, including its signs, dangers and how to cope with it.

Whether it’s the stress of upcoming exams, a heavy workload or personal problems, everyone experiences it at some point. However, there is a common misconception that stress is always bad. In reality, stress can be both positive and negative, depending on how it’s managed.

Everybody suffers from stress at times. Can it ever be a good thing?

Stress is often viewed as something negative, but it can actually be beneficial in some situations. For example, when you’re facing a deadline, stress can motivate you to work harder and faster to get the task done.

‘This type of stress is often referred to as “eustress”, which is a positive form of stress,’ explains Brett Thornton (Yim Thai), director, Counselling Thailand. ‘It can improve cognitive function, increase motivation and productivity, and enhance performance.’

However, Thornton points out, not all stress is positive: ‘When stress becomes overwhelming and chronic, it can lead to serious health problems and negatively impact mental health. It’s important to recognise the signs of stress and know when to seek help.’

Positive and negative stress

Stress is a natural response to challenging or demanding situations, and while it is often associated with negative outcomes, not all stress is bad. In fact, some stress can be positive and even beneficial in certain situations.

Any number of situations and challenges can create eustress, including starting a new job or project, taking on a challenging task or assignment, participating in a competition or event, learning a new skill or hobby, or pursuing a personal goal or ambition.

On the other hand, negative stress, or distress, is stress that is perceived as overwhelming, debilitating and harmful. Distress can lead to negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression and burnout. Examples include losing a job or experiencing financial difficulties, going through a difficult breakup, coping with a serious illness or injury, dealing with a traumatic event such as a natural disaster or personal loss, or feeling overwhelmed by work or academic demands

Thornton says that the key difference between positive and negative stress lies in how we perceive and respond to the stressor. Eustress can be motivating and energising, while distress can be overwhelming and harmful. It’s important to recognise when stress is becoming overwhelming and to seek help if needed to manage it in a healthy way.

Common signs of stress

Stress can manifest itself in many ways, both physically and emotionally. Some common signs include:

  • headaches and body aches
  • digestive issues, such as stomach pain or diarrhea
  • insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • feeling anxious or irritable
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • fatigue or lack of energy
  • changes in appetite, either over-eating or under-eating

It’s important to note that everyone experiences stress differently and some people may have unique symptoms not listed here. Pay attention to your body and emotions and don’t hesitate to seek help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

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What are the dangers associated with stress?

According to various medical experts, chronic stress can lead to a variety of dangerous outcomes, both physically and mentally. Research from the American Psychological Association found that stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems.

‘Chronic stress can also contribute to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and burnout,’ adds Thornton. ‘Some people turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of coping with stress, which can lead to addiction and other serious health issues.’

From eustress to distress – the signs

It’s vital to recognise when stress has become overwhelming and potentially harmful. Some signs that healthy stress has crossed the line to become a concerning mental health issue include:

  • feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with stressors
  • withdrawing from social situations and isolating oneself from others
  • losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable
  • changes in sleep patterns, such as sleeping too much or too little
  • feeling hopeless or worthless
  • having thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

It’s important to seek help if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, as they may be indicators of a more serious mental health issue.

Coping mechanisms for stress

There are many coping mechanisms that can help manage stress, both in the short and long term. Some healthy coping mechanisms include:

  • exercise – physical activity can help reduce stress and improve mood
  • mindfulness and meditation – these practices can help reduce stress and promote relaxation
  • time management – proper time management can help reduce stress by creating a sense of control and reducing feelings of being overwhelmed
  • breathing exercises – deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress and promote relaxation
  • journaling – writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process and manage stress
  • social support – spending time with friends and family, and talking about your stressors with others, can help reduce stress and provide emotional support.

While these coping mechanisms can be helpful in managing stress, it’s important to seek professional help if stress is becoming overwhelming and negatively impacting your mental or physical health. A counsellor or therapist can provide additional resources and support to help manage stress in a healthy way.


More information

This article was first published in Student Accountant in March 2023 | Get the SA app now

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