Stress and stress management

Stress is the way a person responds to environmental demands or pressures. When stress was first studied in the 1950s, the term was used to explain both the causes and the effects of these pressures. More recently, however, the word "stressor" has been used to mean the trigger that provokes a stress response.

A certain degree of stress is a normal part of every day life; it is when stress becomes constant that it can lead to physical and mental problems. Stress-related disease is caused by excessive and prolonged demands on a person's coping resources.

The symptoms of stress can be either physical or psychological. Stress-related physical illnesses may be caused or at least influenced by stress-related overstimulation of a part of the nervous system that regulates the heart rate,blood pressure and digestive system. Some of these stress-related illnessesinclude irritable bowel syndrome, heart attacks, and chronic headaches.

Stress-related emotional illness may be influenced by stress resulting from major life changes, such as marriage, graduating, becoming a parent, getting fired, or retirement. In the workplace, stress-related illness often takes theform of burnout (a loss of interest in or ability to perform a job because of stress).

When a doctor suspects that a patient's illness is connected to stress, he orshe will take a careful history of recent stress (family or job problems, other illnesses, and so on). Many doctors will evaluate the patient's personality as well, in order to judge how well the person copes with stress. There are a number of psychological tests that doctors can use to help diagnose the amount of stress that the patient experiences and the coping strategies used to deal with them.

Stress-related illness can be diagnosed by family doctors as well as by mental health specialists.

Recent advances in the understanding of the many complex connections betweenthe mind and body have produced a variety of popular ways to treat stress-related illness:

  • Medications. These may include drugs to control blood pressure or other physical symptoms of stress, as well as drugs that affect thepatient's mood (tranquilizers or antidepressants).
  • Stress managementprograms. These may be either individual or group treatments, and usually involve analysis of the stressors in the patient's life. They often focus on job or workplace related stress.
  • Behavioral approaches. These strategies include relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and physical exercise.
  • Massage. Therapeutic massage relieves stress by relaxing the large groups of muscles in the back, neck, arms, and legs.
  • Cognitive therapy.These approaches teach patients to reinterpret stress in order to alter thebody's physical response.
  • Meditation and spiritual practices. Relaxing, meditating and spiritual practices can help reduce stress.

Treatment of stress is one area in which the boundaries between traditional and alternative therapies have changed in recent years, in part because some forms of physical exercise (yoga, tai chi, aikido) that were once considered to be fads have become widely accepted as useful parts of mainstream stress reduction programs. Other alternative therapies for stress, which are occasionally recommended by mainstream medicine, include aromatherapy, dance therapy,nutrition-based treatments (including dietary guidelines and nutritional supplements), acupuncture, and herbal medicine.

The prognosis for recovery from a stress-related illness is related to a widevariety of factors in a person's life, many of which are inherited or beyondthe individual's control (economic trends, cultural stereotypes and prejudices). It is possible, however, for humans to learn new responses to stress.

A person's ability to remain healthy in stressful situations is sometimes referred to as "stress hardiness." Stress-hardy people have a cluster of personality traits that strengthen their ability to cope. These traits include believing in the importance of what they are doing; believing that they have somepower to influence their situation; and viewing life's changes as positive opportunities rather than as threats.

It's not possible or desirable to totally prevent stress, which is an inevitable part of life. In addition, specific strategies for preventing stress varywidely from person to person, depending on the nature and number of the stressors in a person's life, and the amount of control he or she has over thesefactors. In general, a combination of attitude and behavior changes works well for most patients. The best way to prevent stress is for parents to teach healthy attitudes and behaviors within their family.

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