Stress is a normal part of everyday life but how each individual responds to pressure or stress varies. The propensity to become stressed can be determined by genetic vulnerabilities, coping style, personality type and extent of social support. So, when we have a problem, we assess it and try to work out if we possess the resources necessary to cope with it. If we conclude that it is serious and we lack the resources necessary to cope with the problem, we will perceive ourselves as being under pressure or stress.
Allostasis is the process of how the body responds to stress, whether it is short-term (termed acute) or long-term (known as chronic).
Chronic or long-term stress, however, is problematic: if you are continually under stress, your body is constantly producing higher levels of hormones and isn't afforded any recovery time. What can then happen over time is that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are repeatedly released in non-threatening situations or by inappropriate triggers. This continuous activation of your autonomic nervous system (albeit by false alarms) means it becomes unable to switch off and return to normal. However, when the body becomes flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, this is one under chronic stress. This buildup of stress hormones in the blood over time can cause serious health and mental health issues.
Ongoing, repetitive stress is known as culmulative stress. This is a common experience for people who work in chronically stressful situations, for example, but it could apply to anyone exposed to repeated episodes of stress over a long period. It is caused by a buildup of various stress factors such as multiple frustrations or coping with situations where you feel powerless, and lack of rest or relaxation time. Children and older adults are just as vulnerable to stress and indeed may even be more vulnerable to its effects. Stress hormones are released in times of stress regardless because all stressful situations have the same characteristics – novelty, unpredictability, threat to the ego, and poor sense of control.
However, certain groups may be more vulnerable to stress. For example, those with debt or financial insecurity are more likely to experience stress related to money, people from minority ethnic groups or who have alternative lifestyles may be more likely to experience stress as a result of prejudice and social exclusion. People with pre-existing or ongoing health problems may also be more prone to stress in relation to their health, or due to stigma associated with their condition.
The most common signs of cumulative stress include:
Physical symptoms: these might include excessive tiredness, gastric complaints, headaches, back pains, difficulties with sleeping, appetite changes.
Emotional signs: anxiety, being frustrated, guilt or shame, emotional lability or mood swings, disproportionate pessimism or optimism, being irritable, weepiness, nightmares, being apathetic, low mood.
Mental signs: being forgetful, difficulty concentrating, negative affect/attitude, diminished creativity and motivation, boredom, paranoia or ideation.
Relational signs: isolation and loneliness, resentment or lack of tolerance, relationship issues, social withdrawal, antisocial behavior.
Behavioral changes: increased substance use, alterations in eating habits or sexual conduct, increased engagement in risky behavior, hyperactivity, social avoidance, cynicism
Collapse of belief systems: feeling empty, questioning religious beliefs, seeking forgiveness, looking for magical answers, loss of life purpose, low self-worth or needing to assert it.
Why is this a problem? Well, stress is often regarded as normal and as something we should all be able to tolerate. However, the extent to which it could be detrimental is often dismissed. Research indicates that chronic stress is linked to the development of anxiety disorders. A meta-analyses found that when chronic stress is not addressed it can lead only only to acute anxiety but also the development of anxiety disorders. In particular one study concluded that that panic attacks may not result from one significant event, but instead be caused by stress accumulation over a period of weeks. They concluded that stressful events are associated with panic disorder onset in the vast majority of cases.
Additional research has found further cause to be concerned about culmulative stress. A recent study found a positive association between cumulative stressors and involvement in substance use in the period of early adolescence to young adulthood.
Stress needs to be arrested at the beginning so that it does not become the “norm” and therefore form a picture of culmulative stress. Social support networks, personal locus of control and belief systems, personality traits and existing coping strategies often determine how effectively we deal with stress.
How can you stop culmulative stress from developing?
As an individual there are a number of things you can do to cope with immediate signs of stress and address stressful factors that may be causing a problem. Sharing your concerns with others can often assist with achieving clarity and knowing how to address your issues.
1. Identify the problem and causes
The key to tackling stress is to identify and draw links between physical and emotional signs and the pressures you are experiencing. Physical signs such as tense muscles, feeling over-tired, and experiencing headaches or migraines may be your body's warning signs and an opportunity to stop stress becoming problematic.
Once you know you are stressed, try to work out what the underlying causes are. Try to problem-solve and compartmentalize issues into three categories: those that can be resolved, problems that will resolve themselves over time; and those that are out of your control.
Think about a plan to address the things that are resolvable with realistic expectations. If you feel overwhelmed, try asking for help or learning to say no!
2. Evaluate your lifestyle
Think about how you spend you time and whether you are doing too much or need to do things differently. Try to make sure you get some time for yourself to practice self-care. It is important to achieve an equal balance between what you do for others and what you do for yourself.
3. Look at your relationships
Look at aspects of social capital in your life – that is your interpersonal relationships and community networks – to identify support networks and resources that can improve your wellbeing. For example, shared communities where people share resources to reduce individual burden.
4. Consider your diet
A healthy diet has a significant impact upon health and wellbeing and especially mood. High consumption of sugar for example can make us feel more stressed and nutritional deficiencies (such as vitamin b, for example) can lead to anxiety. Higher levels of anxiety are also found in the obese (although direction of causality remains unclear).
5. Be aware of substance use
Use of various substances (alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes) can be problematic although it can differ for individuals. It is worth bearing in mind that for some people, a substance may seem to be stress-reliving but it may also in the long term increase feelings of anxiety.
Physical exercise such as walking can assist with the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones and boost the mood through the production of endorphins.
Mindfulness and other forms of meditation are an important part of self-care that can really reduce stress levels. Research suggests it can be helpful for managing and reducing the effect of stress and anxiety in some people.
8. Pay attention to your sleep
Sleep problems are commonplace when you are under stress. Avoiding caffeine and blue light before bedtime is an important part of good sleep hygiene. Some people find that drawing up a “to do list” before bed can help them to “switch off” worries and sleep better.
10. Be kind to yourself
Remember that you are human and cannot do and be everything for everyone. Try to identify the positive in your life and focus on that which is positive and helpful in your life.
If stress continues to overwhelm you it may be time to seek professional support. Many people avoid seeking help and allow their problems to become more entrenched. It is important to stop stress in its tracks before it progresses and becomes a disorder or damages your health.