Various stressful situations are a natural part of our lives, and nearly any kind of positive or negative change can have a stressful effect. Under normal circumstances, we apply relatively established coping and control mechanisms whenever we face stress and continue a balanced life.
Stress is not always harmful, and people are better equipped to handle short-term stress than prolonged stress. Stress can also make you perform better, and a stressful situation might motivate you to make the changes required in your life.
The body secretes cortisol in stressful situations. The original purpose of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is to help us overcome stressful situations by giving us additional energy.
It is possible, however, that there are so many requirements, changes and other stress factors occurring simultaneously that your resources are depleted or overused. We mainly experience stress related to our jobs, relationships, our personal health or the health of our close ones. Every one of us has a personal limit to the stress we can endure without crumbling under its weight.
Harmful, continuous stress can cause a variety of symptoms and have an adverse effect on your health if it persists.
Typical symptoms include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), headache and various types of rashes. The symptoms of IBS include pain and discomfort in the abdominal area, bloated stomach, diarrhoea and constipation. The condition is harmless, but it has a negative effect on quality of life. More than 500,000 people in Finland suffer from IBS.
Skin disorders caused by stress include increased production of sebum, pimples, itchiness, flaking and occasional red spots. A stress rash typically develops on the neck and the upper chest in exciting situations due to the effect of the stress hormone and adrenaline.
Heart palpitations, cardiac arrhythmia, sweating, frequent urination, back problems and recurring common cold can be signs of excessive stress.
Most common mental symptoms related to stress include nervousness, irritation, sleep problems, aggression, restlessness, anxiety, depression, memory problems and difficulty in making decisions. Stress can easily manifest as problems in family life or in a relationship or as complete isolation from social relationships.
Severe stress can lead to total paralysis or burn out, depression, excessive use of intoxicants and even self-injurious thoughts. In such cases, you should visit a doctor immediately.
Psychotherapist Minna Tuominen from Mehiläinen says that, although a certain amount of stress is a natural part of life, you should not hesitate to seek help for too long. According to Tuominen, you should seek help if the symptoms of stress do not subside in two weeks.
“If you experience the symptoms of stress, such as insomnia and stomach issues, for two weeks, your train of thought has stalled at the station, your friends are tired of dealing with your issues and you seem to be unable to break this cycle, you should see a doctor. Doctors can rule out the possibility of coeliac disease and lactose intolerance, which are known to cause similar symptoms as IBS,” says Tuominen.
It is also very helpful to discuss any stressful matters and to evaluate whether you demand too much of yourself with an expert. According to Tuominen, the principle of surviving on your own is still unfortunately prevalent in our society.
“The prevailing idea is that successful people should be able to cope on their own. It requires a lot of self-compassion to admit that you need the help and support of others. Studies on happiness indicate that people who cooperate are happier and physically healthier,” says Tuominen.
Learn more: Fatigue or exhaustion? (in Finnish)
Analysing how you use your time is essential in alleviating stress. Enjoyable activities generate positive stress that can increase your energy levels – however, you need to find the time to do these things. Psychotherapist Minna Tuominen encourages everyone to divide their daily schedule into three parts: work or studying, relaxation and sleep.
“It is easier said than done, but eight hours of work or another meaningful and productive activity, eight hours of an enjoyable activity and eight hours of rest or sleep is the perfect composition of a day. It is also recommended to let go of work for at least 36 consecutive hours every week,” says Tuominen.
You can determine the level of your stress with a stress score. There are various tests available online. Psychotherapist Minna Tuominen highlights the importance of diet in alleviating stress. Stimulants should only be used in moderation.
“Your body may already be stressed due to the excessive use of coffee or alcohol. Everything should be taken in moderation, even exercise. Exercising has a key role in managing stress and relaxation, but a brisk walk in the fresh air is already very helpful. Not all of us need to practice for a marathon.”
Mehiläinen also provides you with a wellbeing analysis that measures your stress and recovery based on your heart rate variability.
Occupational psychologist Maria Kenola provides further insight on whether stress is inherently a negative phenomenon and whether stress should be alleviated or taken advantage of as a resource.
You can also read an article of the interview here: interview with an occupational psychologist on how to manage stress
If you believe that you suffer from prolonged symptoms of stress, please do not hesitate to book an appointment with a general practitioner in order to receive a referral to a psychotherapist or psychologist, if necessary. If you have access to occupational health care, booking an appointment with an occupational health physician is the first step.