What stress is really doing to you
South Africans sometimes don't realise how much stress they're under or how it effects us. 

South Africans are resilient, capable people but could our strong, ‘let’s get on with it’ temperament be preventing us from acknowledging and dealing with potentially dangerous stress levels?

“The demands of our fast-paced lifestyles are placing us under increased pressure and stress-related conditions are sky-rocketing; some of which include serious diseases such as depression and ischemic heart disease. It is vital that we take stress more seriously and proactively manage our daily stress levels,” says the Medical Nutritional Institute (MNI).

While our fast-paced, energetic modern lifestyles offer many advantages, the escalating demands of work and home appear to be taking their toll; evident in an increase in a wide range of stress-related conditions, from anxiety to insomnia, obesity, depression and mood disorders, alcoholism and substance abuse.

According to findings from the first South African Stress and Health Study, South Africa is ranked 7th highest in the world for the prevalence of mood disorders and one in every 10 of us will suffer a mood disorder at some point in our lives[1] <#_ftn1> .

Our country is not alone in this and the situation reflects global trends. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggests the USA is also an over-stressed nation, with 32% of Americans living with extremely high stress levels and 44% stating that these have increased during the past five years[2] <#_ftn2> . Similarly, a report recently adopted by the European Parliament suggests that over 27 percent of European adults are affected by mental ill health every year[3] <#_ftn3> .

Why don’t we take stress more seriously?

Whether it’s because we believe we can handle the pressure or are worried that admitting we’re feeling the impact would be a sign of weakness, many of us seem to be ignorant about how much stress we are really under and the serious implications of runaway stress.  

“Many healthcare professionals argue that stress-related disorders are escalating so rapidly because the role played by stress is not being recognised and treated or addressed early enough,” says Dr Conrad Smith, a GP based in Johannesburg and director of MNI.

What is stress and how does it affect our bodies?

Stress is our response to an event that has disturbed us and caused mental and/or physical tension. Our bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood that can give us extra energy and strength, such as cortisol. In some instances, this release of chemicals can be a positive reaction, enabling us to swiftly deal with a threatening situation or motivating us to perform at our best. If maintained for a prolonged period, however, this heightened state puts a serious strain on the body because it doesn’t allow it to relax and recover back to its normal state.

Prolonged high stress levels can lead to a wide variety of health conditions and studies also show that those under sustained pressure are much more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours, such as excessive drinking and drug use, chain smoking, and making poor exercise and nutritional choices.

Managing our stress levels

“Stress is a natural, inevitable part of a fulfilling life, but given the potentially serious hazards posed by excessive stress, it is vital that we proactively manage our stress levels,” says Smith. We need to be aware of how much stress we are under at any given time and learn coping measures, especially during periods of intense emotional, physical or mental stress.

There are recognised stressful events, such as moving house, divorce, the death of someone close, losing a job or suffering a serious illness or injury, but we also need to be more conscious about the frequent times a sudden change will leave us stressed and emotionally depleted. There are many ordinary occasions when we can feel overwhelmed, unable to cope and need a little extra support, for example, returning to work after a long holiday, writing an exam or taking on a bigger workload. Prevention through pro-active management is the key.

“It’s more about routinely looking after your mental health than trying to eliminate every source of stress. Becoming aware of, and coping with, the smaller, but far more frequent stressful events in our daily lives will improve our overall mental wellbeing and help prevent serious stress-related conditions from developing.

Anti-depressants and other therapies have an important role to play when it comes to treating chronic stress-related disorders, but the general goal should be prevention by proactively managing your stress and maintaining your mental health.

The good news

The good news is that there are numerous actions one can take to give ourselves an improved physiological advantage during stressful periods. “The best way to manage daily stress is by using a combination of techniques, says Smith. “Eating a balance diet, exercising regularly, practising relaxation techniques and seeking support through personal relationships are all proven ways of keeping daily stress levels low.

During a particularly stressful period, when you’re in overdrive and experiencing mental exhaustion, irritability, mood swings and forgetfulness, these methods should be complemented with natural, non-prescription supplements. These not only help stabilise and improve our moods, they also boost levels of mental alertness and concentration, enabling us to cope with the extra stress better.”

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