Stress: Its effect on our minds and bodies

Stress — all of us have experienced it in some form or the other. However, if left unmanaged, stress may have a negative impact on our body and mind. Let’s start by understanding more about the phenomenon. 

What is stress? It is our body’s way of responding to a demand or threat. At normal levels, stress helps one stay focused and alert — to tackle challenges at home and work. However, when faced with a threat, it prepares us for a ‘fight or flight’ response. But beyond a certain threshold, stress can affect physical and cognitive health. 

Symptoms The most alarming thing about stress is that people get used to it and accept it as ‘normal’, often not noticing the toll it takes on their bodies and minds. Therefore, it is imperative to know how to spot the typical symptoms. They have been divided into three categories depending on what is affected. 

Cognitive symptoms include: 

  • Memory issues 
  • Lack of concentration 
  • Poor judgment 
  • Negativity 
  • Anxiety 
  • Persistent feeling of worry 

Physical symptoms include: 

  • Aches and pains 
  • Diarrhea or constipation 
  • Nausea or dizziness 
  • Rapid heart rate 
  • Sexual issues 
  • Frequent colds 

Emotional symptoms include: 

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety 
  • Frequent mood swings 
  • Anger 
  • Feeling overwhelmed 
  • Isolation 

Behavioral symptoms include: 

  • Inconsistent eating patterns 
  • Change in sleeping pattern 
  • Withdrawal 
  • Substance use 

Types The American National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has identified two major forms of stress. 

Acute stress This is short term and often has a clear and immediate solution. A person may go through acute stress after an argument with a friend or a family member, or when trying to meet an urgent deadline at work. However, this type of stress disappears once the issue is resolved. If faced regularly though, it can be harmful in the long run. 

Chronic stress This type of stress manifests over a long period and adversely affects the person’s body as well as their mental health. Long-term financial and personal issues or a sudden traumatic experience like the death of a loved one can lead to chronic stress. If untreated, it can cause disorders of the cardiovascular, respiratory, immune, and reproductive systems. 

Chronic stress can also become a part of the person’s personality making them immune to the mental and physical risks involved. Moreover, a breakdown during such a phase can make one indulge in violent acts, suffer a heart attack, or even attempt suicide. 

Causes People have different stressors. While certain situations can trigger a response in one person, the same issue might not arouse any reaction in another. Having said that, these are some common and major life events that can prove stressful to all. They include: 

  • Financial troubles — unemployment, retirement, lack of savings 
  • Chronic illness or injury 
  • Death of a loved one 
  • Family issues 
  • Troubled relationships, marriage, and divorce 

Neuropsychiatric disorders such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, schizophrenia, and migraines — caused due to a dysfunction in the central nervous system — are also a cause for stress. 

Treatment Diagnosing stress is a challenge in itself. The doctor will inquire about the individual’s symptoms and the events that might have led them to a stressful situation. For the professional to uncover those reasons, a face-to-face interview is the most effective way. Once diagnosed, the person will be prescribed medication or asked to undergo stress management. 

Medication Usually, doctors don’t prescribe medicines unless they are treating an underlying condition like depression. Most antidepressants have various side-effects and there is a chance that they might only mask the stress, not cure it. It should be noted that self-medication should be avoided in all circumstances. 

Stress management Various lifestyle changes can help one manage stress. They include: 

Acknowledging the signs The first step towards rehabilitation is accepting the fact that one is going through stress. Being in denial is only going to aggravate stress. 

Exercising Apart from physical benefits, regular exercise distracts from the cycle of negativity. A good workout helps shift the focus from a stressful thought to the physical activity. 

Maintaining a balanced diet A healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables strengthens the immune system and helps fight stress better. A poor diet will weaken the system and make the person prone to diseases and add to the stress. 

Managing time 

Jotting down a to-do list helps one prioritize daily tasks, and efficiently finish the jobs that may act as stressors. 

Relaxing A step back from the daily routine will help one self-introspect. Often, the individual will know exactly what kind of situations to avoid to stay away from stress. 

At Plexus, an award-winning Neuro and Stem Cell Research Centre, stress-related issues — including the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders (a major cause of stress), are dealt with using various rehabilitative methods. Specially trained therapists help patients overcome stress while dealing with their underlying problems. Remember, if severe disorders and conditions can be managed through rehabilitation, then so can stress! 

Sadness and Depression: Let’s Understand the Difference

There are approximately 264 million people in this world suffering from depression. Are they just sad? The answer is an absolute no. In simple terms, Sadness is an emotion — a feeling that goes away after a period of time. Depression, on the other hand, is a mental disorder that does not go away on its own.

Let’s delve deeper to know the difference between the two.

Sadness It is a very normal human emotion brought on by difficult or stressful situations — loss of a loved one, financial setbacks, health problems, or other personal issues. However, it is easy to overcome this temporary state of mind by doing things that make one happy, sharing/venting, or even crying. Moreover, once the temporary phase passes, or the individual is able to handle the issue, the feeling of sadness automatically subsides, and normal behaviour is resumed.

If this doesn’t happen, and the feeling continues for an extended period of time, it might be a sign of depression.

Depression This is a mental disorder that has serious implications on almost every aspect of a person’s life. Depression can hit anyone at any time — irrespective of gender or social status. These are some of the common symptoms:

  • A sense of discouragement
  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of interest in activities that the individual once found enjoyable

Also, depending on the severity of the condition, the symptoms may worsen and the person may develop suicidal tendencies. The World Health Organization has classified depression into two major categories based on severity:

Recurrent depressive disorder: As the name suggests, this type of depression will include repetitive episodes. The afflicted person will go through bouts of sadness, mood fluctuations, loss of interest, tiredness, and a decrease in productivity on regular intervals for at least two weeks. Moreover, during recurrent depression, people will also have

feelings of low self esteem, guilt, disturbed sleep, and appetite. Depending on the symptoms and their severity, this form of depression can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. When a person goes through the mild or moderate version, he/she will face difficulties in carrying on with normal life but will not cease to function totally. On the contrary, during a severe episode, it is highly unlikely that the person will be able to function normally, be it personally, socially, or professionally.

Bipolar affective disorder: This comprises extreme mood swings and was formerly known as manic depression. This level of mania affects the person’s sleep, energy, activity, judgement, behaviour, and ability to think clearly. These episodes may occur rarely or even multiple times a year. While some of the affected people might go through certain emotional experiences in between episodes, others may not.

Causes and treatment While there are a number of common causes of depression like family history, childhood trauma, and drug abuse, certain medical conditions — especially neurological disorders — can also lead to depression.

These are known as neuropsychiatric disorders that have origins in neurology and psychiatry. Multiple factors such as traumatic head injuries, infections, side effects of medication, genetics, and environmental conditions can be the reason behind these disorders.

Common neuropsychiatric conditions include: 

  • Epilepsy
  • Migraine
  • Eating disorders
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Dementia
  • Mood disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Sleep disorders

Living with depression is not an option. One must seek help and explore the following ways to tackle the condition:

Medication First and foremost, one should not indulge in self-medication. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotic medicines used to manage the adverse effects of depression have benefits as well as risks. Always consult a doctor and take only what is prescribed.

Psychotherapy Sessions with the therapist can help one overcome negative thoughts. The therapist, depending on the severity of the condition, might also recommend family or group therapy sessions.

Occupational therapy Therapists can help the person examine and create a balance between leisure, work, and relationships. The therapist can define the roles of the person and help him/her adapt to their responsibilities so that they can participate and finally gain a sense of accomplishment.

Exercise One should aim to indulge in physical activities for at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week. Exercise increases the production of endorphin hormones that have a positive effect on one’s mood — however, exercise alone cannot treat depression.

Although depression is an overpowering mental health disorder with a potential to disrupt lives, with proper and timely intervention, its progression can be halted.