Stress is not a bad thing. It is a normal and necessary part of life.
Without a bit of stress, we would not be motivated to get to work, finish a project, write an exam successfully or patch up a disagreement with a friend.
But stress can also pose mental and physical health risks, especially for those who experience high levels of it over long periods of time.
That's why it is important to recognize the different types of stressors we encounter in life and learn how to manage them accordingly.
Let's start with a basic understanding of how stress works.
Generally speaking, we feel stressed whenever we encounter a challenging situation.
When this happens, our brain automatically triggers the release of certain hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, which can boost our energy and sharpen our focus.
This chemical reaction -- known as the stress response -- is good because it can help us deal with the situation at hand, whether it be writing an exam or avoiding a potential car accident.
But the same hormones that help us in the short term can hurt us over the long term.
Consider the person who suffers from chronic stress, the kind that comes from problems at home, money troubles or the inability to find work. These stressors may lead to elevated hormone levels for long periods of time. And that can contribute to a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease.
Of course, different people react to different stressors in different ways.
Some people experiencing mild stress -- the kind that comes with trying to complete a number of major work projects under deadline -- may not be affected at all. Others may suffer headaches, stomach pains or insomnia. Or they may feel irritable and edgy and have a tendency to lash out at people around them.
People will also respond differently to chronic stress. Some may be able to handle major problems at work without skipping a beat while life at home feels out of control. Others may try to cope by turning to smoking, drinking or overeating.
So what can you do to manage your stress in healthy ways?
You can begin by learning to recognize how your body reacts to different stressors. Do you experience tension headaches, stomach upset and irritability? Do your muscles feel tight? Is your breathing shallow and rapid? Do you have trouble concentrating or feel overwhelmed? It's important to check in with yourself on a regular basis and notice how your body and mind are doing. This will help you to recognize the early signs of stress so you can do something before it gets out of hand.
Once you recognize the signs of stress, decide to do something positive about it. Quick stress breaks may be useful in managing everyday stress. The fact box accompanying this column contains a list of suggestions that may be helpful. With a little practice, these strategies can become a natural way to deal with stress by helping to relax muscles, reduce discomfort, boost our energy and put us in a more positive frame of mind.
But it is important to emphasize everyone is different. While stress breaks are useful, they may not be enough to help someone dealing with more complicated issues. If you're having difficulty managing stress, try seeking professional help by talking to a counsellor or a primary health-care provider. They will discuss your situation with you and give you the advice you need to help get your life back on track.
Laurie McPherson is a mental-health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.