You have a major deadline coming up tomorrow and you still have a ton of work to do. Your child’s principal called; your child is being disruptive … again. You have 12 people coming over for dinner this weekend and you still have no idea what you’re going to make. On top of everything else, your mother isn’t feeling well but refuses to go to the doctor. Your muscles are feeling tense, you find yourself nervously tapping your feet as you sit at your desk. Your thoughts keep racing around in your head and the people around you are starting to avoid you because you keep snapping at them. This is stress. And most of us have been there.
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What is it?
Stress is the response of your body and mind to demands being placed on you. When you feel threatened, your brain releases chemicals called hormones that send alarm signals throughout your body. These hormones prepare your body to take action. The hormones make your skin sweat, your breathing quicken, your heart rate go up, your muscles tense, and your senses come alive. It’s this “fight or flight” stress response that allowed our human ancestors to survive when face-to-face with a threat. Unfortunately, most of our modern “threats” like workloads or family conflict are not situations we can easily fight with our fists or run away from. When we don’t have a healthy way to deal with stress, it can harm us more than help.
Some common sources of stress, known as stressors, include the following:
- Physical environments around you can raise your stress level. Traffic, noise (sirens keeping you up at night, a barking dog next door), and uncomfortable or unsafe living conditions can also cause stress.
- Family and relationships are common daily stressors. Marital disagreements, unhealthy relationships, rebellious teens, or caring for an ill family member or a child with special needs can all send stress levels skyrocketing.
- Work can be an ever-present source of stress. Work stress is caused by things such as job dissatisfaction, an exhausting workload, insufficient pay, office politics, and conflicts with your boss or co-workers.
- Life situations can cause stress. For example, poverty, financial pressures, discrimination or harassment, unemployment, isolation, and/or a lack of social support all take a toll on your daily quality of life.
- Major life changes such as the birth of a baby, a divorce, a career change or move can also place a lot of stress on you—even if the event itself is positive.
In small amounts, stress is good for us. Stress can motivate us and push us to reach our potential. It can help you get through that presentation to your clients or motivate us to do homework when we’d rather take a nap. Stress is very individual. What you find stressful may not be stressful for someone else.
It’s important to know that stress itself is not a mental illness. But when the stress keeps piling up and it starts to make you feel worse instead of motivating you, it can harm your mental health and well-being. Stress is a risk factor for someone who is already vulnerable to developing a mental illness. Stress can affect us physically too. In high amounts stress can, for example, cause high blood pressure and make it hard for your body to fight off infections.
Who does it affect?
Stress affects most of us. In a recent Canadian poll, about one-quarter of Canadians said that they feel quite a bit stressed or extremely stressed most days . But stress can affect some people differently than others:
- Women are more likely than men to report feeling stressed. Men and women also report reacting to different kinds of stress. Women tend to react more to chronic stressors like time constraints, meeting others’ expectations, marital relationships, children, and family health. Men, on the other hand, are more affected by work-related stressors like a change in job, demotion, pay cut, and financial difficulties.
- Youth are doing more today than ever before, balancing school with other activities, friends and jobs. All of these responsibilities can lead to stress. In one survey, about 14% if Canadian youth felt stressed on most days.
- Older adults face stressors like major illness, changes in routine and income related to retirement, physical changes, the death of a loved ones, and a shrinking circle of friends. All of these stressors can contribute to increased levels of stress in Canada’s elderly.
- People with chronic illnesses like diabetes, arthritis or heart disease can experience extreme stress because they worry about their illness, their treatments, and the effect that the illness will have on themselves and those around them.
Could I be over stressed?
Signals of stress may include changes in your body, actions, emotions, and thoughts. Learning to identify these changes may help you better manage your stress:
Changes in your BODY
- My muscles feel tense
- My breathing and heart rate feel quicker
- I’m having headaches or stomach aches
- I’m seeing changes in my sleep or appetite
- I’ve had diarrhea
- I’m feeling tired
Changes in your ACTIONS
- I’m using alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs to help me cope
- I find myself withdrawing from others
- I’m drinking more coffee
- I lose patience with people
- I’ve been avoiding situations that are stressful
- I keep fidgeting
Changes in your EMOTIONS
- My emotions are different than they used to be
- I feel worried and confused
- I’m angry and irritable
- I feel like I can’t cope
Changes in your THINKING
- I’m having trouble concentrating, remembering and making decisions
- My thoughts are racing
- I’ve lost my self-confidence
- I have a negative attitude towards myself and my life
Of course, things other than stress can cause some of these symptoms. And having some of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re over-stressed. But if you are experiencing a lot of these symptoms along with some of the stressors listed at the beginning of this sheet, you may want to seek extra support or advice.
What can I do about it?
Because stress is so individual, we each need to find our own way to cope. There are some things that you can do to figure out how to best deal with your stress:
- Find out what stresses you the most: If you need to, make a list of everything that’s on your mind. You can’t do anything to stop your stress until you know what causes it.
- Problem solve: Deal with problems effectively. Life problems, like financial issues, family conflicts or problems at work can be a huge cause of stress. Learning to deal with problems properly can make a big difference. There are a number of steps to problem solving:
- Identify the problem
- Set some goals
- Make a list of possible solutions
- Choose a solution from your list
- Put your solution into action
- Track your progress
- Don’t procrastinate: Don’t put off the things you need to do. Keeping a daily planner can help keep you organized and on track. Focus on tasks as well as decisions. Putting off making decisions can cause unnecessary stress and worry.
- Talk about it: Sometimes we just need to vent. Talk to someone you can trust. Schools, workplaces, and faith communities often offer counselling services.
- Share your work load: Delegate your responsibilities. This doesn’t mean giving everyone else your work. Instead, it means taking on only what you need to do. This applies at home, too—ask family and friends for help, if you need it.
- Self-care: Exercise, meditation or prayer, getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, spending time with pets, going for a walk, laughing and stretching—all of these are great for stress relief. Unfortunately, they are also sometimes the first things we stop doing when we feel under pressure.
- Practice assertiveness skills. Assertiveness means standing up for yourself in a respectful way. Many people agree to do things or put up with problems because they don’t want to upset someone else, but this can just add to stress. You can learn more about assertiveness in books, online, and through community courses.
Where do I go from here?
BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information
Visit www.heretohelp.bc.ca. See our section on managing stress including our Wellness Modules. The Modules are full of information, tips and worksheets to help you understand stress and take care of your mental health.
Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division
Visit www.cmha.bc.ca or call 1-800-555-8222 (toll-free in BC) or 604-688-3234 (in Greater Vancouver) for information and community resources on how best to manage stress, including workbooks and courses.
Resources available in many languages:
*For each service below, if English is not your first language, say the name of your preferred language in English to be connected to an interpreter. More than 100 languages are available.
Call 811 or visit www.healthlinkbc.ca to access free, non-emergency health information for anyone in your family, including mental health information. Through 811, you can also speak to a registered nurse about symptoms you’re worried about, or talk to a pharmacist about medication questions.
Crisis lines aren’t only for people in crisis. You can call for information on local services or if you just need someone to talk to. If you are in distress, call 310-6789 (do not add 604, 778 or 250 before the number) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal. The crisis lines linked in through 310-6789 have received advanced training in mental health issues and services by members of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.
This info sheet was prepared by CMHA BC Division on behalf of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information and HeretoHelp. Funding was provided by BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority. For more resources visit HeretoHelp.bc.ca.