I’m fine, it’s just stress…
By Janine Shamos
How often have you said it? I’m fine, just a bit stressed… We flippantly blame everything – from not sleeping, to smoking too much, to snapping at our partner, to taking pills ‘just in case’ – on stress. But what is it really? And is it as harmless as we think it is?
“Stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of demand and we feel stressed when those perceived demands exceed our abilities or time”, says Johannesburg-based psychologist Johan Hattingh. When people feel stressed, their bodies release chemicals into the blood which give them more energy. This can be a good thing if their stress is caused by physical danger, but a very bad thing, if it isn’t. “We absolutely all need some measure of stress in our lives or we wouldn’t be very productive”, says Hattingh – wouldn’t bother getting up in the morning, or going to work, or handing in that assignment. But too much stress and our performance, thinking, and emotional and physical health start sliding into a decline – and it’s a vicious cycle, the more stressed we feel, the less we perform or sleep, the more stressed we feel.
Stress upsets our body’s natural balance but the reality is – it’s not going away. So where does it come from and what do we do about it? The first step is recognising that there is a problem and pinpoint what it is that is ‘stressing us out’.
Survival stress is sadly what many South Africans have experienced – the stress that results from being in physical danger. Your body naturally responds to danger with a burst of energy so that you are able to fight the dangerous situation or escape it. This is the ‘fight or flight’ response and is life-saving if there is an actual physical danger. Hattingh says that the problem arises when there is no danger but your body is compensating for one anyway. “Increased levels of adrenalin and glucose, a depressed immune system, elevated blood pressure, and muscle tension can all save your life – they can also do damage over the long run.”
Internal stress is what many of us do on a daily basis – we worry about things we can do nothing about, or make a big deal of things that aren’t that important.
Environmental stress results from things around you that cause stress, like annoying neighbours, noise, crowding, and pressure from work or family.
Did you know that stress can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes, and make you more likely to catch illnesses like colds? Stress also contributes to alcoholism, obesity, drug addiction, cigarette use, depression, and anxiety. Stress can affect your body and your mind. People under stress can become tired, sick, and unable to concentrate or think clearly, their relationships suffer, and their mental and emotional health can break down. If your worries are taking over and consuming your thoughts, or you can’t concentrate or make multiple errors and mistakes in what you are doing, cry or get angry a lot, or feel unable to relax or sleep, you may be suffering from stress. The good news is there are things you can do to help reduce your stress.
Sometimes we are so used to living with stress, we don't know how to identify it. See if you can identify with any of these symptoms:
· Increased heart-rate, faster breath.
· Sweating more than usual.
· Cold hands, feet, or skin.
· A sick feeling in your stomach , 'butterflies', or nausea.
· Muscle tension.
· Dry mouth.
· Frequent trips to the bathroom.
· Headaches, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
· Change of appetite (eating either less or more).
· Change in sleeping habits (either causing you to sleep too much or not sleeping enough).
· Nervous behaviour like fiddling, talking too much, biting your nails, grinding your teeth, or pacing.
· Catching colds or the flu more often.
· Sex life and performance is affected.
· Feeling constantly tired and worn out.
While occasionally experiencing one or two of these symptoms may not be cause for concern, if you have a number of these symptoms you may be under more stress than you think. The first important step to take is see a doctor if you are sick or experiencing any symptoms – it’s crucial to rule of any physical illnesses first before we diagnose ‘stress’.
For immediate relief of stress – stop and breathe. Stop what you're doing and take a few deep, relaxing breaths. This helps get your body calmer so you can think better. Go into another room, close the door, put on headphones, walk outside – do something that shifts your attention, at least for a while.
Laughter does wonders. Remember the time you ate were trying to escape the weird guy from accounting and you hid in the broom cupboard? Or the time you went out with one black shoe and one navy shoe? Or when your cat fell asleep on the arm of the sofa and snored so loudly she fell off? Laugh, have a giggle – it’s guaranteed to make you feel better.
“Definitely the long-term key is of course is to a lead a healthier, reduced-stress lifestyle, one that allows you time for yourself, for the things that matter, and for getting your body and mind stronger.” We all ‘know’ that exercise is important, but having a healthy heart and lungs really does improve your ability to cope so get your heart pumping – dance, box, cycle, get a puppy. “Get a hobby that allows you time for yourself to do something that you enjoy – and doesn’t place you nder any more stress or pressure.” When your mind has a time to breathe, so will you. Nicotine and caffeine cause a stress response in your body – so as much as you think the smoke and coffee are helping, they’re ultimately making it worse.
Life is never stress-free and things happen that will cause us stress that we have no control over. But you do have a choice – to let them overwhelm you, or not to. Here are some points to help you:
· Don’t ignore or minimize your problems. If something is worrying you identify it and admit it. If you think it shouldn’t be upsetting you, find out why it is.
· Ask yourself whether you can change it. If you can, do it; if you can’t, learn ways to handle it. Your mother-in-law will never think your cheesecake is good enough – so make chocolate cake.
· Ask yourself if you’re over-reacting. Does the noisy neighbour with the terrible music really deserve all of your energy?
· Are you expecting yourself to be all things to all people? Stop and examine your priorities – and don’t forget you are one of them.
· Get organised. If you work better at night, do your thinking work then. Learn to say no to things that aren’t important.
· Develop emotional supports and use them. You would be there for the people in your life, why do you expect them not to be there for you? Have fun, talk, vent, get silly.
· If you need help, admit it. There are courses and people who can help you change your negative patterns of thinking and behaving. We’ve all had them, make use of those people who can help.
· You can contact SADAG ( South African Depression and Anxiety Group) where counselors can help you decide if it is more than stress and could be Panic Disorder or Generalised anxiety Disorder 0800 20 50 26 or www.sadag.co.za
Stress can seem overwhelming; it can be frightening and isolating. Stress can be … stressful. Everyone's stressors, reactions to stress, and coping skills are different, and it may take some time and practice but be patient - you'll find something that works for you. You’re not alone; you should never be ashamed; and you can overcome it. Remember that while not everything that is faced can be changed, nothing can be changed unless it is faced. Try not to stress about it
I’m not sure about you, but as a ‘proudly’ South African, I’m not feeling all that positive about my country these days. Given the recent xenophobic attacks, power outages, escalating petrol costs and unstable political climate, it’s no wonder the average South African feels somewhat negative and in some cases, downright fearful about the current state of affairs. The purpose of this article is, however, not to highlight these difficulties (goodness knows we’re all well aware of what is happening) but to explore the possibility of developing an alternative, more hopeful story for our country.
Sure, I know the cynics and the ‘realists’ out there may argue that we are powerless against the harsh realities we’re exposed to on a daily basis and any attempt to ‘think positively’ is simply sugar-coating or side-stepping the severity of the situation. I don’t think anyone needs convincing of how bad things are and this article is in no way intended to minimize the way many South Africans are feeling. I, however, feel that the constant negativity propagated by the media and the constant stories of ‘doom and gloom’ are becoming dangerously contagious, and we are at risk of becoming a nation that has given up the ‘fight’ and developing a condition called ‘learned helplessness’.
This term refers to a condition where a person, through conditioning and repeated exposure to negative events or trauma over which they have little control, develops the belief that they are ultimately helpless over anything and everything. This condition is often present in children who have grown up in abusive environments where they were too young to negotiate any kind of resolution. This can lead to an unhealthy (often destructive) belief system where one operates from a sense of helplessness, experiencing overwhelming feelings of frustration and despair. This sounds all too familiar in our current society, yet there are ways and means to combat this sense of helplessness, and to develop healthier and more pro-active beliefs and choices.
A prime example of individuals in a community making a ‘collective’ pro-active choice is the Tamboerskloof Neighbourhood Watch (TBK watch). This initiative began as a result of a spate of burglaries in the Tamboerskloof area. A group of residents in the community formed a partnership with the South African Police Service (SAPS), Community Policing Forum (CPF), Security Service Providers and local authorities. They all work together to help protect themselves and their properties, and to reduce the fear of crime by means of active, visible citizen patrols, greater vigilance and reporting of suspicious incidents and crime. All these efforts have fostered a community spirit of caring and friendship and the burglaries in the area reduced significantly, but most importantly there is a real sense of having come together to take ‘control’ and individuals having empowered themselves to deal with a situation that could easily have escalated out of control.
Another example of individuals taking a collective stand was the overwhelming positive response to xenophobic violence from the South African public. Reports of xenophobic violence and hatred featured prominently in South Africa's - and the world's - daily press in recent weeks and rightly so. But what didn’t make the headlines was the kindness, concern and support shown by ordinary South African citizens.
Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers, commented that South Africans showed their true spirit of humanity through the outpouring of goods, food, blankets and money for the victims of the xenophobic violence. In just a week, Gift of the Givers moved over R1 million worth of goods to refugee centres in Alexandra, Cleveland, Primrose and various other parts of Ekurhuleni. Sooliman remarked that "I've been in this industry for 15 years and I have never seen a response like this”. On-the-ground volunteers shared stories of the inspiring acts of compassion they witnessed while working in the refugee camps around Gauteng and other parts of the country. One of the most amazing things, that we posses, is the ability to make really significant and meaningful choices.
So the question remains, how do we turn this condition ‘learned helplessness’ around and transform it into ‘learned helpfulness”? It begins with the very basics, on a micro level, where each and every one of us can do something to change the way we think about the situations around us. What many of us forget is that the human brain is a masterpiece in natural engineering (a highly intricate and technologically advanced computer, if you will) that enables ordinary people to achieve great results, even during times of extreme stress. The brain is ‘wired’ in such a way, that one cannot have two thoughts simultaneously. So, if we can ‘train’ our brains to immediately replace a negative thought with a positive thought, we will create new pathways in the brain, that will trigger new thought patterns, a bit like creating several ‘highways’ in the brain as a means of transporting messages (thoughts).
Once we are able to change these thought patterns and essentially re-programme our ‘internal wiring’ we will feel empowered to be more pro-active, and less reactive, to events and circumstances. Imagine the results that can be achieved by putting several of these ‘high tech’ computers together, and motivating one another to remain positive and hopeful. One only has to read Victor Frankl’s, Mans search for meaning about survival in the Auschwitz concentration camps, to gain insight into the power of the human spirit.
In terms of behavioural change, we are all responsible for our actions, as small and insignificant as they may seem. There’s a wonderful old Italian joke about a poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear Saint - Please, Please, Please give me the grace to win the lottery.” This lament goes on for months until finally one day the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says with weary frustration, “my son…at least meet me half way by please buying a lottery ticket!!!!!!!!!!!!
This story highlights the fact that many of us are not necessarily doing our part sufficiently. Sure many of us are great at voicing our anger and frustration, but if we could only utilize that energy in a more positive manner. If each of us could take a stand against the ‘lawlessness’ in our country, it would mean having to change some of our very own behaviors. Goodness knows, I’m certainly guilty of talking on my cell phone (sometimes I confess, even text messaging) while driving, and WHY…because I know I can get away with it. Some may argue that this is not a serious criminal offence, but the reality it’s the very nature of this mentality “I can get away with it” that feeds a culture of lawlessness. If we could take some responsibility for our own law-abiding actions on a daily basis (no matter how small we may think they are) we are contributing to a greater unity and positivity in our country. The same way negativity feeds negativity, positivity is equally contagious. Just think back to the euphoria and positive energy present in South Africa during the weeks leading to the world cup rugby finals. The energy was so powerful it was impossible to ignore!
So as I write this article, I have made a commitment to myself and to you, the reader that I (as a proudly South African, law-abiding citizen) will no longer be talking on my cell phone while driving (or text messaging for that matter). Secondly, I have subscribed to sagoodnews.com, an inspiring and positive website that delivers a daily (and weekly) dose of good news. And lastly, the writing of this article is my way of taking some responsibility for what I can contribute. I challenge each person reading this article to do something differently today, tomorrow and the next day to make our country something to be truly proud of!
WRITTEN BY DIANE MALLABY