Mental Health

Recognise the signs of stress before you explode

Stress is an unavoidable part of life. By taking active steps to identify and reduce stress triggers, you’ll not only be able to survive, but also thrive.

What is stress?

Stress can be defined as any signs of distress, including physical, mental and emotional. The American Institute of Stress describes signs and symptoms of stress as what you experience when the demands made of you exceed the personal resources you’re able to mobilise.

It’s hardly surprising that South Africa is the second most stressed country in the world after Nigeria, according to a 2019 Bloomberg Business Survey, which measured homicide rates, GDP per capita, as well as corruption and income inequality. In addition to these factors, many South Africans feel burdened by load shedding, traffic congestion, political and economic uncertainty, and years of corruption. Too much of anything is depressing and dangerous.

Work-life blur

‘We live in a world where stress is increasingly prevalent,’ says Dr Corinne Johnson, a psychiatrist at Life Brackenview, Johannesburg. ‘Technology has intruded into our personal lives, creating longer working hours and less work-life balance.’ She says that many people are working a lot harder, leaving very little time for family, hobbies and leisure time. ‘There’s a lot less time for ourselves and we don’t invest enough in our social support network.’

Not all stress is bad

It’s important to distinguish between different types of stress: there’s good and bad stress. Good stress (also known as eustress) can spur you into action and boost your productivity. Richard Sutton, the South African adviser to top athletes like tennis pro Kevin Anderson, and author of The Stress Code, says without this kind of stress, you wouldn’t be the best version of yourself.

Why chronic stress is harmful

Then there’s bad stress. Short-term stress (also known as acute stress) occurs when you’re facing an immediate threat, prompting your body to produce a fight-or-flight response, releasing cortisol (the primary stress hormone) into your bloodstream. The main purpose of this hormone is to encourage you to act on the perceived threat and escape. Acute stress could be caused by a job interview or writing an exam and usually subsides after 90 minutes.

When a stressor has been around for a while and you can’t escape or adjust your situation, chronic stress develops. Its symptoms are more subtle, but it will eventually have a negative effect on your health, causing stress symptoms, such as headaches, poor sleep patterns or even anxiety and depression. Chronic stress could be caused by a difficult boss, or financial or family problems.

Identifying stress triggers

Understanding your personal triggers is the first line of defence against stress, explains Dr Johnson. 

‘Your stress triggers depend on your unique circumstances,’ he asserts. ‘It could be the loss of a significant support figure or being thrown into a different work environment.’

Things that trigger stress can be external (such as background noise or a difficult colleague) or internal (such as feeling out of control or overwhelmed). Good ways to deal with external triggers and stressors include a balanced diet, exercising and limiting the number of activities that you’re involved in. Internal stress triggers can be minimised by practising mindfulness, says Dr Johnson. ‘You need to find ways to create balance in your life and avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol and drug use or withdrawing socially.’

Managing stress triggers

Ronald Potter-Efron, the author of Healing the Angry Brain, suggests a three-step guide to finding peace.

1. Escape 

Remove yourself from a stressful situation. If you’re in the middle of a conversation, excuse yourself and take a few minutes to practise deep, meaningful breathing in a quiet space. If you’re in a meeting and you can’t run, take an internal timeout by picturing yourself in a calm place away from the triggers.

2. Seek solutions

Venting might sound like a good idea, but it doesn’t move you forward. If you call a friend, explain that you want to come up with a solution and need advice on how to work through your stress rather than rehash the cause of your frustration.

3. Find a release

Smashing something or punching a pillow provides short-term comfort, but you may find you are still agitated later on. Choose an activity with a defined beginning and end, like a yoga or exercise class, or a long hike. Use an affirmation that helps you put your stress to rest: By the end of my yoga class, I will feel refreshed and let go of my tension.

Fostering resilience

According to Dr Johnson, the best way to combat stress in your life is by fostering resilience. This includes reaching out to friends and family for help and support. Psychologists argue that face-to-face connection changes our biochemistry, releasing oxytocin into our bodies, which is the natural antidote to stress hormones.

‘Resilience is about nurturing all aspects of yourself – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual,’ says Dr Johnson. ‘For some, it might be doing something creative. For others, it might mean family time, going for a run or practising their faith. These are all healthy ways of dealing with stress.’

While there is good stress and bad stress, when the latter becomes chronic, you should consider seeking professional help. Life Mental Health has nine dedicated facilities in four provinces across the country, providing expert acute psychiatric services.

The content provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and does not cover every aspect of mental health. Consult a doctor or your nearest emergency unit if you are concerned about your own or a loved one’s mental health. The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a qualified healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.