Assessing your stress level and how to reduce it

Some stress is necessary in our lives; it keeps us motivated and enthusiastic. For example, being under pressure to complete a piece of work on time can boost creativity. But it's important to get the balance right.

Everyone reacts differently to stress. Some people take it in stride and simply work through it. But others become tense, angry, irritable or tearful; and some lose concentration or reach for comfort foods, alcohol or cigarettes. None of these responses are good for you.

Assessing your stress level and how to reduce it

Some of the research into stress

When British scientists studied 34 men who had recovered from heart attacks or acute chest pain, they found that 14 had experienced emotional stress — such as an argument with a neighbour or sadness about a sick or deceased relative — less than two hours before their heart attack. The remaining 20 men reported no stress before their heart attacks.

All of the men in this study were given a series of mentally challenging tests such as making a speech to raise stress levels, and they all showed short-term increases in blood pressure and heart rate.

But the blood pressure levels of the 14 men who had reported stress, anger or depression just before their heart attack took longer to return to normal. They also had higher levels of platelets in their blood, which increases the chances of dangerous blood clots forming; in the other men, the levels were unchanged.

Assessing your stress

How many of the following signs and symptoms of being stressed apply to you:

  • Feeling sweaty or shivery
  • Pounding heart or palpitations
  • Needing to go to the bathroom more often than usual
  • Feeling sick in the stomach (having "butterflies")
  • Dry mouth
  • Feeling tired, having no energy
  • Odd aches and pains
  • Smoking more than you used to
  • Drinking more (needing a drink to relax)
  • Working to the point of exhaustion
  • Headaches
  • Disturbed sleep, waking unusually early
  • Being easily irritated
  • Thinking, "I can't deal with this"
  • Loss of appetite for food, fun or sex
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Loss of sense of humour
  • Little interest in personal appearance
  • Loss of interest in other people
  • Feeling everything is pointless
  • Tearfulness
  • Forgetfulness

If you checked off more than five symptoms, you may already be suffering from stress.

Eliminating stress

Studies have shown that psychological influences, including stress, account for almost a third of heart attacks — almost as high a proportion as smoking. But these studies have also identified one positive psychological factor in the battle against stress and cardiovascular disease.

People with a high "locus of control" — those who feel like they're in charge of their own destiny — have a 25 per cent lower risk of heart attack than those who feel like random forces beyond their control are always buffeting them. These people are generally happier and less likely to become depressed.

And, if you adapt well to stress, you are 25 per cent less likely to have a stroke. The good thing is that you can apply these findings to your own work or home life right away.

For example:

  • Recognize that in most situations you do have a choice, even if only about how you react, and it is your own choices that largely determine what happens to you. So at times of uncertainty, repeat to yourself, "I have a choice."
  • Counteract negative thinking. If you find yourself thinking, "There's nothing I can do about this," remember that there is usually some aspect of your situation that you can influence.
  • Work at becoming more decisive and developing your problem-solving abilities.

The next time you're facing a stressful situation, try to put one of these three points into practice. Doing so can help you learn how to better deal with stress, thereby reducing its negative effects on your health.

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