There are various ways in which we can learn to manage our stress better and lessen the negative health consequences of chronic stress. Steps include:
Although we may have become tired of hearing terms like maintaining “balance” in our lives, this remains an important factor in managing stress. All of us need to try and balance the number of challenges we face with rest and relaxation to try and be in our “optimum zone”.
Part of maintaining balance is having a balanced daily routine, which includes getting enough sleep each night (usually 7-9 hours).
Exercise has a multitude of beneficial effects on the body and the brain.
Exercise can help in the management of stress by improving hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis regulation (see article on “What is stress?”), increasing brain neurotransmitters that assist with improving our mood and anxiety levels, and stimulating the growth of new brain cells.
Following a healthy, balanced diet
A healthy, balanced diet can help you to prevent and manage stress. Healthier options to include in your diet are vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole-grain foods, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
It’s also important to try and eat a variety of nutritious foods, as different foods contain different nutrients.
Limit your intake of substances
One aspect of managing stress involves decreasing your use of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, unnecessary medication, and drugs.
By limiting your intake of these substances, you’ll limit the damaging effects they have on your body and learn healthier ways to deal with your stress.
One of the key ingredients to a healthier, happier life is good, strong relationships. The people we have in our life can be a great source of comfort and support.
To better manage stress, it’s important to engage with and build strong supportive relationships with people. Another way to engage with social support structures is to join support groups available in your area.
Most of what has been described above forms a part of self-care. Self-care essentially means looking after yourself.
Other aspects of self-care may involve having time alone to pursue your own interests and hobbies, journaling your thoughts, doing something creative, or pampering your body.
When you’re faced with a problem that’s causing you stress, you can try and use a problem-solving approach. This approach can help you to either reduce or remove the problem, learn to better adapt to the problem, and/or reduce the distress and impact the problem has on you.
The steps involved in problem solving are as follows:
- Identify what the problems are
- Come up with a list of possible solutions for each problem
- Choose one of the solutions and implement it
- Evaluate whether the solution has worked and whether you need to try an alternative solution or adjust your approach.
Mindfulness involves a process through which you enhance your awareness by observing internal and external experiences as they happen with a non-judgemental attitude. Through repeated practise, mindfulness can assist with decreasing the distress we feel and help us to learn to accept things as they are.
Certain practices, such as yoga and meditation, can assist in cultivating a more mindful approach to life.
One can learn various stress-management techniques – either through self-help resources or through formal courses or psychotherapy.
There are many self-help materials available to help you learn better ways to deal with stress (e.g. books, apps, websites). Look for self-help materials that are based on scientific evidence and which have been formulated by mental healthcare practitioners. Some evidence-based approaches may include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), mindfulness, problem-solving therapy, relaxation therapy, and resilience-enhancing approaches.As you can see, there a variety of ways you can learn to deal with stress better. If, however, you have medical problems, severe or persistent mental health problems, or feel unable to cope, it’s best to seek professional help.
When to visit a doctor
It’s important to understand that stress isn’t a medical condition or diagnosis. Stress can, however, lead to a person developing other physical or mental health problems. One will usually not need medication to treat stress but, at times, medication may be required if you develop any health problems related to stress.
Your doctor can diagnose medical or physical problems related to stress. Your doctor may also be able to assist you in terms of finding good resources, such as counselling or support groups, that are available in your area.
Medical conditions that can develop due to chronic stress include:
- High blood pressure or hypertension
- Cardiovascular disease, e.g. angina, heart attack or stroke
- Stomach ulcers
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Certain cancers
- Immune system dysfunction and increased susceptibility to infections
- Auto-immune disease, e.g. rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis
- Skin conditions, e.g. acne, psoriasis and rashes
- Endocrine disorders involving unbalanced or dysregulated hormone levels
Stress can increase your risk of developing mental-health disorders, including depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and substance-use disorders. However, scientists don’t believe that stress causes these disorders, but rather that it can be one of the factors that leads to the development of them.
If you’re feeling so stressed that it makes you think of harming yourself or others, seek help immediately. It’s important to know that the overwhelming emotions will pass and that, with help, you will start to feel better.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that develops after exposure to a trauma. This disorder involves repeated re-experiencing of the trauma, such as through intrusive memories and nightmares, avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma (e.g. specific places or people), increased negative thoughts and emotions (e.g. blaming oneself and feeling overwhelming fear and anger), and increased arousal (e.g. being easily startled and always being on the lookout for danger).
If you have been through a trauma and you develop these types of symptoms, it’s important for you to seek medical advice and treatment.
If you’re struggling to cope with stress and not sure who to speak to, the resources listed below can help direct you to the help you need:
- The Mental Health Information Centre (MHIC): Visit https://mentalhealthsa.org.za/ or phone 021 938-9229.
- The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG): Visit http://www.sadag.org/ or phone 011 234-4837 or 0800 20 50 26.
- Lifeline: Visit http://lifeline.co.za/ or phone 011 422-4242 or 0861 322 322.
- Suicide Crisis Line: Phone 0800 12 13 14 or 0800 567 567, or send an SMS to 31393.
Reviewed by Dr Leigh van den Heuvel, psychiatrist at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Hospital. August 2018.