April is Stress Awareness Month and, at some point, stress affects most of us. It can lead to a wide variety of health conditions including impaired immune function, headaches, sleep problems, cardiovascular diseases, uncharacteristic anger, anxiety, and even depression. The World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American businesses $300 billion dollars a year.
Stress can be harmful to our health and emotional well-being; however research shows there are some benefits and that stress can be managed successfully.
Anna Zendell, PhD, MSW, and Carol Shenise, MS, RN from Excelsior College’s School of Health Sciences teach an online course called Managing Stress. They sat down with Excelsior Life for a two part series on managing stress before it manages you.
Excelsior Life: How do you identify sources of stress? What are some of the symptoms a person feels?
Shenise: Three types of stress have been identified. They include eustress (considered good stress – e.g., new job, marriage, baby); neustress (considered neither good nor bad); distress (considered bad stress e.g., job loss, disease, death). The symptoms may be physical (headache), emotional (fear), mental (confusion), and/or spiritual (loss of faith).
An event beyond a person’s coping abilities can produce stress and the response is very individualized.
Excelsior Life: Brian Luke Seward, author of Managing Stress Principles & Strategies for Health and Well-Being, suggests reactions or symptoms are different based on the person’s stress perception. Can you explain further?
Shenise: The three types of stress influences are bioecological, physchointrapersonal and social. The bioecological influences are seasonal affective disorder and environmental toxins like pollution. The psychointrapersonal influences include thoughts, values, and beliefs. Social influences are overcrowding, financial insecurity, and relocation.
Excelsior Life: What impact does stress have on daily life?
Zendell: We all go through stress on a daily basis, and it can help us to get through difficult or unpleasant situations. It’s important to realize that some stress can be positive, motivate personal growth, and change. Stress releases adrenaline and cortisol, which can provide quick energy and sharpened focus. The impact of stress on daily life can be unique to each individual.
However, if stress continues on for longer periods of time, a person’s ability to function productively can falter. With ongoing stress, the body and mind can become fatigued and feel tired or worn out. Our immune systems can become slow to respond; we become sick more often or it takes us longer to recover from an illness. Stress can affect one or more areas of our lives including work, relationships, parenting, to name a few. If a person is prone to headaches or certain types of allergies, these symptoms will manifest in a person’s daily life. If a person tends toward anxiety, stress will exacerbate the anxiety.
Caregivers deal with daily stress. For example, the vast majority of caregivers find fulfillment in caring for someone they love. Yet, they struggle to juggle the many competing demands of life leading to insomnia, heightened anxiety, irritability and guilt from not performing adequately for their employer or loved one. The pain is real.
Excelsior Life: What impact does stress have on daily life for our military?
Zendell: Many of our military and their family members live in a constant state of stress. They often move at short notice and worry about what will happen if and when they are deployed. Many experience the acute stressors of being deployed to war zones or disaster sites. In fact, there is a term for the stress experienced by our military deployed to combat or disasters: Combat/Operational Stress. Combat stress, in particular, if left unaddressed can lead to development of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The competing stressors that our service members live with necessitate continually juggling priorities. Since we serve a very high military population at Excelsior College, our advisors and faculty work with students to help them prioritize their workload.
Excelsior Life: What are some unique stressors of our military?
- Finding and selling homes
- Separation from spouse, children, and family
- Communication isolation
- Required to be connected and available 24/7
- Physical demands
- Inability to find jobs after military discharges
- Re-entry into their communities as civilians
Excelsior Life: What impact does military stress have on learning and ability to focus?
Zendell: Our military students often talk about the toll stress takes on their ability to focus on their learning and to meet their course deadlines. They talk about trying to do their homework at 1am after the children have gone to bed and they have spent a bit of time with their spouses or partners.
Many of our military are not only struggling with the day-to-day stressors of military service, but have also endured traumatic experiences, putting them at significant risk for developing PTSD. This means that they are experiencing a significant cumulative and very complicated stress response.
With PTSD, a stress management plan may not be enough. Some will need to seek professional assistance to help them learn to live with the trauma experienced, and to develop effective ways of coping with their situations. The VA Mental Health Services can be valuable for locating resources specific to the experiences of persons who have experienced trauma.
Part 2 of this series will provide stress reduction strategies, identify stress triggers, and personal stress management plans for managing stress before it manages you.