Note: This is a five part series on stress that addresses stress in children (part 1), stress during the teen years (part 2), stress as adults (part 3), getting control of your stress (part 4) and managing stress on an ongoing basis (part 5).
Singer/songwriter Billy Joel got it right when he wrote his classic rock song, “Pressure.” As a few lines of the song tell us, “You’re just like everybody else…even you cannot avoid…pressure.”
Whether you’re a star or a stay-at-home mom, a senior adult or a millennial, you’ve got some sort of pressure in your life: pressure to perform, to provide, to produce, to make decisions. And chances are very good that you’re experiencing some level of stress right now.
Stress Factors: Growing Up…
Adults of all ages and in all situations experience significant amounts of stress. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2013 Stress in America™ survey, 42% of adults say their stress levels have increased over the past five years. And although stress factors often change through the years, most of them lie within several broad categories: money, work, economy, and personal relationships according to the survey. Some stressors tend to accompany the various stages of adulthood.
- Are you a young adult? Paying for college loans, marriage, or dealing with young children may be particular stress factors for you. You may be continuing your education or beginning a career.
- Are you in your middle years? Then maybe you’re a parent dealing with teenagers. Financial pressures of paying the mortgage, saving for college funds, or planning for retirement might be weighing you down. Perhaps you help care for aging parents or provide constant advice to your young adult children.
- If you’re considered elderly, you, too, tend to have stressors associated with your stage of life, such as declining health, retirement issues, loneliness, caring for grandchildren, or grief from loss of a spouse.
Sometimes these age-associated stressors appear in unexpected stages of life. A pregnancy in middle-age, for example, or losing a spouse in young adulthood might create even greater challenges. Although we can identify broad categories, the possibilities of stress-inducing situations for adults seem endless.
Did you change jobs recently?
Is your boss difficult?
Are you worried about getting laid off?
Have you lost your job?
Are the bills piling up?
Are you in debt?
Do you disagree with your spouse about how to budget the income?
Does your spouse misunderstand you?
Are you going through a divorce?
Is your family arguing?
Are you beginning a new relationship?
Does your schedule seem impossible?
Does your car need a major repair?
Are you trying to sell the house?
Do you need to find an apartment?
Is your living space a mess?
Do you live in a dangerous environment?
Is your spouse ill?
Are you dealing with a health issue?
What’s going on in your life? What are your particular stress factors?
While some events are almost always stressful for everyone – moving, for example – the effects of many events depend on your personality and your perceptions. You may thrive on the pressure of preparing to host a dinner party, while your best friend may stress out over one extra place at the table.
You might perceive some stress as “good” stress and some as “bad.” Certainly, many stressors throughout life serve to challenge you, make you stronger, motivate you, or enrich your life—friendly competition in the workplace, for example, or the birth of a child. And, of course, many events generate what you might consider bad stress, such as a job loss, illness, or the loss of a loved one.
But regardless of your age, your situation, or how you perceive your circumstances, stress does exist as a result of certain events in life. Heidi Hanna, PhD, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Stress, writes, “Stress in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it just is.”
Stress Overload: We All Respond to Pressure
*Quick Quiz: (No pressure!)
Which of the following might be symptoms of too much stress?
- Lower back pain
- Itchy skin
- Excess feelings of guilt
- An impulsive shopping spree
When you take time to identify all the things in your life that can cause stress, you’re more likely to be on the lookout for any negative effects of stress. Still, do you really know when you’ve got too much stress in your life? Do you know when enough is enough?
You may be able to identify your stress factors. But you might not always recognize particular symptoms or reactions that result from stress. According to the APA survey, many adults who reported symptoms of stress didn’t see these symptoms as an actual result of stress. Thirty-nine percent said stress had little or no effect on their physical health, while 43% said it had little or no effect on their mental health.
Initially, your body’s response to stress is a good thing. Regardless of age, everyone’s body responds similarly when we perceive a circumstance as pressure, or as threatening in some way. Experts at the University of Maryland Medical Center explain: The body releases adrenaline, blood pressure goes up, pulse and breathing quicken, muscles tense, even the immune system is altered. When these bodily changes occur too often without enough time in between, however, your body begins to suffer detrimental effects. A constant state of stress takes its toll.
Stress can cause almost any physical or mental symptom. The American Institute of Stress lists on its website 50 common symptoms of stress. Its authors note, “It’s hard to think of any disease in which stress cannot play an aggravating role or of any part of the body that is not affected [by stress].”
Among the common symptoms are physical effects such as...
- Back pain, neck ache, muscle spasms
- Ringing ears
- Swallowing problems
- Skin problems like rashes or itching
- Chest pains
- Panic attacks
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased urination
- Frequent colds or infections
- Jaw pain
- Feeling lightheaded, faint, or dizzy
- Digestive upset
- Unintended weight gain or loss
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Constant weakness or fatigue
...and mental effects such as…
- Extreme anxiety or worry
- Excess guilt
- Mood swings
- Anger or frustration
- Disturbed sleep
- Forgetfulness or confusion
- Difficulty concentrating
- Inability to make decisions
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Frequent crying spells
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feeling lonely or worthless
…and behavioral symptoms such as…
- Loss of interest in appearance
- Nervous habits such as fidgeting
- Obsessive or compulsive behavior
- Increased smoking
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol
- Decreased quality of work
- Lying or offering excuses for poor work
- Problems communicating with others
- Social withdrawal
- Gambling or impulse buying
Just as important, the AIS explains, is realizing that entire body systems are affected by stress. Consider, for example, its possible effects on the reproductive system by decreasing testosterone and sperm production in men, while altering a woman’s menstrual cycle.
*And the answer to the Quick Quiz: All of the symptoms listed could result from stress.
What Does It Mean?
When you experience symptoms of stress overload, your body is sending you a message. Those tension headaches or heartburn episodes mean you’ve had enough. It’s time to take your body’s warning message seriously. If you shrug it off as just stress and never do anything about it, your body and mind will suffer the consequences in the long run, sometimes with deadly results.
- Imagine what can happen if you yell at the computer screen and pound your fists on the desk every time there’s a glitch. While you’re upset, your entire cardiovascular system reacts—your heart pounds and your blood vessels dilate. Repeated stressful episodes, explains the AIS, may lead to inflammation of coronary arteries, then possibly a heart attack.
- Do you and your partner argue often? Unmanaged stress resulting from important relationships can increase the risk of death for middle-aged men and women, according to recent studies from Denmark. In the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, researchers reported that worries, demands, and conflict associated with family raised mortality rates 50 to 100%, while conflicts within other social relationships raised rates two to three times.
- How do you handle the morning rush of getting everyone out the door on time or the daily commute in heavy traffic? Results of a study published in Psychological Science show the importance of daily stress management. Subjects in the study who failed to deal positively with daily stressors were more likely to develop anxiety and depression 10 years later.
- Failure to manage stress may lead you down the road to addiction, says a 2012 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. Repeated exposure to “adverse life events” results in actual shrinkage of the brain region involved with impulse control.
- Indirectly, stress can lead to major illness when it causes you to lose sleep, to eat unhealthily, or to pick up other damaging habits that weaken your immune system.
- If stress begins to affect your behavior or your mental state, important relationships, your job, and other areas of life may begin to suffer.
Maybe you think there’s nothing you can really do about stress. Even if you can eliminate or reduce the pressure of some stressors, many of them can’t be avoided. Stress is simply a part of life. After all, you can’t stop working or stop dealing with your family. So what can you do?
You have two choices:
1. Continue to let the pressures of life harm your body and mind, or
2. Learn to respond positively to the stress that remains.
The pressure’s not going away. Make a choice.
Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg
- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
A Child's Life
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
A Teen's Journey
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
No More Excuses: Stress Control Is Fundamental
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
Craft Your Management Plan—and Follow Through
Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. /All Rights Reserved
To Be or Not to Be...Angry
Solving the Anger Problem
Becoming a Sugar Sleuth
Career Counseling: Who needs it?