Various factors can contribute to us feeling stressed. These include:
Our thoughts have a major impact on the stress we experience and certain types of thinking patterns increase our risk of getting stressed. These can include negative thoughts about yourself or your life, being a perfectionist, black-and-white thinking (where things are either all good or all bad), or any rigid thinking patterns.
We can also generate stress in our minds by worrying excessively about possible negative future outcomes, or being overly pessimistic about our lives.
Stress at work
For many people, one of the main sources of stress is related to the work we do. Stress at work can be periodic or longer term in nature.
Stress at work can be related to conflict in our work relationships, feeling overburdened by a heavy workload, doing work you don’t find stimulating or enjoyable, or feeling under too much pressure by your superiors. When stress is overwhelming in the workplace, it can lead to burnout. This involves an increase in negative feelings and thoughts, and a decrease in productivity.
Having to care for someone
Having to care for others can be an enjoyable and fulfilling experience, but it can also leave us feeling drained and stressed. Sometimes we can feel that the requirements involved in caregiving are exceeding our ability to cope.
Caregiving can involve looking after our children, or elderly or sick family members or friends. It may be particularly difficult to balance your own needs with those of the individuals you care for. If you don’t take time to incorporate rest and relaxation into your life, you may develop burnout due to the requirements of caring for others.
Unemployment or retrenchment
It can be very stressful to lose your job or to be unemployed. Frequently this will coincide with other changes in your life, such as financial difficulties or having to change your lifestyle. It can also be a source of conflict in your close personal relationships.
Often, people also invest a great deal of their self-worth in their job or in being able to provide for themselves and their family, and thus being unemployed can have a negative impact on a person’s self-esteem.
We experience grief when we lose someone of something of great importance to us. This could be the death of a family member, a friend or a beloved pet, or when a romantic relationship or important friendship ends.
The grieving process involves an array of challenging emotions, such as anger, fear, guilt, sadness and depression. The grieving process can be very painful and may continue for long periods of time (usually a few months). There’s no way of escaping grief. Often, the best approach is to allow yourself to experience grief, while still looking after yourself and making healthy choices. Over time, one learns to accept the loss, find new meaning in life, and move forward.
An unhealthy diet can also be a factor that causes stress to the body. Often, when people feel stressed, they increase their consumption of unhealthy foods such as cakes, sweets and fatty or processed foods.
Stress can make our bodies crave foods high in fats and sugars, and a busy schedule can make planning balanced meals difficult. When your body is under stress, you may actually need to consume more nutritious foods as the stress can deplete your body’s nutrients.
Caffeine and other substances
People who are stressed often consume more caffeine in the form of coffee, tea or energy drinks to help with feelings of fatigue and tiredness. Caffeine can, however, disrupt rest and sleep, and lead to increased adrenaline and cortisol levels, thus contributing to us feeling more stressed.
Some people use more substances, such as nicotine, alcohol, drugs and medication, as a way to cope with stress. However, these substances don’t make stress go away, but only sometimes provide temporary relief. The overall effect of these substances is usually harmful, and they tend to contribute to a cycle of worsening stress and a decreased ability to cope.
The microbiome and stress
The brain and gut are intimately connected. This explains why, when we feel stressed, we often experience symptoms in our gut, such as butterflies in the stomach or diarrhoea.
Globally, there’s an increased interest in the function that the microorganisms around and in our bodies play in various aspects of our health. A major research focus is the microorganisms in the gut (the “gut microbiome”) and their effect on the brain and behaviour. The gut microbiome may also play a role in either enhancing resilience or vulnerability to stress.
Reviewed by Dr Leigh van den Heuvel, psychiatrist at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Hospital. August 2018.
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