While a limited amount of stress may actually be beneficial, high stress levels over an extended period of time impacts us on many levels and can be harmful to our well being.

A certain amount of stress can actually be good for us, it keeps us stimulated and motivates us to work hard and accomplish goals we may have set for ourselves, whether these goals are personal or work related. It may give us that extra nudge we need to complete certain tasks and activities, and reach deadlines. It is also necessary in times of crisis or emergency, when the brain initiates a process referred to as a “fight or flight response.” This reaction is in direct response to a threat where adrenalin and cortisol levels rise to allow a person to cope with whatever is at hand immediately. However, when stress levels increase significantly and remain high for an extended period of time, we start to see the harmful effects on us, emotionally, mentally, physically and cognitively. The lifestyle that is prevalent in the modern society requires us to continuously strive for more, to keep up with the pace and to meet unrealistic deadlines at times, in addition to juggling other societal factors like poor service delivery, high crime rates and a lack of resources that often leave households without the basic necessities. All these factors can lead to an increase in stress – a term that most people have used to describe their current wellbeing at some time or another.

Unfortunately, the increase in stress has left many people struggling to cope with daily demands. Stress can be caused by a variety of reasons and not everyone experiences stress in the same way. Significant life changes, financial problems, relationship problems, high work load and the like can all contribute to stress. Common symptoms of stress include:

Emotion: feeling moody, more tearful, feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, feelings of anxiety and depression

Physical: feeling depleted of energy, lethargic, experiencing headaches, an increase in bloodpressure, muscle spasms, aches, nausea and being unable to shake of illnesses like the flu. Behaviour: isolating oneself from friends and family, an increase or decrease in sleep, an increase or decrease in appetite, using alcohol and/or other substances to cope.

Cognitive: difficulty concentrating and making decisions, inability to focus effectively for a period of time, negative thoughts and pessimistic outlook on situations, constant worrying.

In extreme cases, stress can lead to burnout, depression, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness and while we may not always be able to control external factors that may be contributing to high stress levels, there are several things one can do to help manage the stress levels and combat some of the harmful effects of stress Make time for relaxation and exercise:

Making exercise and relaxation part of your daily routine can assist in reducing stress levels. Making time for yourself and engaging in healthy activities regularly can release pent up tension and strengthenthe body and mind.

Take relaxing baths, go for walks, sign up for yoga, get a massage or start dancing Get enough sleep and try maintain a healthy diet Build a supportive network: Our society strives towards individual achievements and continuous growth, often leaving one feeling alone and unsupported. It is important to build a supportive network of family and friends with whom you can have enjoy some ‘time out’ with and rely on when one need help Learn to ask for help Learn to say no Try reframe the negative thoughts into more constructive positive thoughts If these feelings become severe it is important to seek professional help. Nikki Themistocleous is a registered clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg and a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of South Africa.

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