Freedom from stress

Stress is a highly used, and misunderstood, term. Understanding stress and its sources can help us deal with it effectively

Smiling CoupleBeing stressed out is common in today’s life. Though everybody knows what being stressed out is, a survey of what stress means to indivduals will throw up varied results. That’s because stress is a clearly experienced, but vaguely defined. Let us try to understand what stress is, because that will help us learn to manage it better.

What is Stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment. Stress is the adverse reaction people have in response to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them. Stress is a normal part of life. We can’t avoid it. At one point or the other, everybody—men, women, children, and even foetuses—suffer from stress. Stress can come from any situation, or thought, that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or anxious. What’s more—what is stressful to one person is not necessarily stressful to another.

It is also important to understand that not all stress is bad. Without a certain amount of stress in our lives, we wouldn’t feel encouraged to try new things, or work on areas of our life that need to change. Therefore, in small quantities, stress is good – it motivates us and helps us be more productive. If you have too little pressure in your life, you will feel tired and bored, and will not have the enthusiasm for the day or for your work. However, excessive stress, or a strong response to stress, is harmful and must be avoided.

Sources of stress

To be able to deal with excessive stress, we must first understand what causes it. Stress can come from outside or from within us.

External Stressors

Environment: Your physical surroundings can set off the stress response. Examples of environmental stressors include: an unsafe neighbourhood, pollution, noise [sirens keeping you up at night, a barking dog next door], and uncomfortable living conditions. For people living in crime-ridden areas or war-torn regions, the stress may be unrelenting.

Family and relationships: Problems with friends, romantic partners, and family members are common stressors. Marital disagreements, dysfunctional relationships, rebellious teens, or caring for a chronically-ill family member or a child with special needs, can all send stress levels skyrocketing.

Work/Profession: In our career-driven society, work can be an ever-present source of stress. Work stress is caused by things such as job dissatisfaction, an exhausting workload, insufficient pay, office politics, and conflicts with your boss or co-workers.

Social pressures: Your social situation too can cause stress. For example, poverty, financial pressures, racial and sexual discrimination or harassment, unemployment, isolation, and a lack of social support all take a toll on daily quality of life.

Internal Stressors

Multiple factors can play a role in increasing stress internally. These include uncertainty or worries, pessimistic attitude, unrealistic expectations, and low self-esteem. If you are a constant perfectionist, stress will keep nagging you. An excessively angry disposition will keep adding stress. Not being able to assert yourself could also be stressful.

Common features of stress

In some people, stress-induced adverse feelings and anxieties tend to persist and intensify. Scary enough, research suggests 70 to 90 per cent of adults visit primary care physicians for stress-related problems.

Chronic or persistent stress can present, physically, as:? Headaches, dizziness, blurred vision

  • Aching neck, backaches
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Ulcers
  • Infertility in women, impotency in men, loss of sexual desire in both sexes
  • Allergies
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent cold – asthma, bronchitis
  • Premature aging
  • Fatigue
  • Diseases such as hypertension, asthma, diabetes, heart ailments and even cancer.

Mentally, it can present as:

  • Constant irritability with people
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Feeling of being a failure
  • Loss of interest in life and people
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Feeling neglected or lonely
  • Constant or recurrent fear of disease
  • Dread of future
  • Self hatred, guilt, feeling of ugliness
  • Feeling of unable to cope
  • Difficulty in letting go and laughing
  • A feeling of having failed as a parent or partner
  • A feeling of having no one to whom you can really confide
  • The inability to finish one task properly before having to rush onto the next

The dynamics of stress

In a challenging situation, the brain prepares the body for defensive action – the “fight or flight response” by releasing stress hormones namely, cortisone and adrenaline. These hormones raise the blood pressure and the body prepares to react to the situation.

Fight Response

With a concrete defensive action, the stress hormones in the blood get used up, entailing reduced stress effects and symptoms of anxiety.

Flight Response

When we fail to counter a stress situation, the hormones and chemicals remain unreleased in the blood stream for a long period of time. Subsequently, it compels the mind and body to be in an almost constant alarm-state in preparation to fight or flee. This state of accumulated stress can increase the risk of both acute and chronic psychosomatic illnesses and weaken the immune system of the human body.

Relaxation response

Just as the body has an automatic process to prepare it for a “flight or fight” situation, it can also go into what is called the “relaxation response”. This stage of low arousal is less known than the body’s red alert status, and it initially takes a conscious effort in order to experience it. During relaxation, our blood pressure is lowered, breathing becomes regular and the metabolic rate decreases. All these things allow the body to recover from the strains placed on it by everyday life. A prolonged period of relaxation also increases the body’s secretion of particular mood-altering chemicals, which lead to feelings of happiness and contentment.

The video discusses Relaxation response in detail.

Research has suggested that the most significant and sensible way to relax is a change in lifestyle. However, there are some alternative methods which can help in relaxation response.

Deep breathing

Breathing is a necessity of life that most people take for granted. People who are at ease with themselves and the world breathe slowly, deeply and rhythmically. When we become stressed our breathing gets shallower and accelerates erratically. Improper breathing contributes to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, muscle tension, headaches, and fatigue. Therefore, breathing awareness and good breathing habits will enhance your psychological and physical wellbeing.


Meditation is a very simple way of lightening the mind, forgetting about everyday stresses and concentrating solely on mental relaxation. It is the practice of uncritically attempting to focus your attention on one thing at a time. Often the meditator repeats, either aloud or silently, a syllable, word, or group of words. This is known as mantra meditation. Gazing at a fixed object such as a flame or flower can also anchor attention.

Guided imagery

Guided imagery is the use of relaxation and mental visualisation to improve mood and/or physical wellbeing. It is simply the use of one’s imagination to promote mental and physical health. It can be self-directed, where the individual puts himself into a relaxed state and creates his own images, or directed by others. When directed by others, an individual listens to a therapist, audio-taped exercise or watches a video that leads him through a relaxation and imagery exercise. Some therapists also use guided imagery in group settings.

Physical exercises

Exercise is the simplest and most effective means of stress reduction.[We cover the psychological benefits of exercise in Exercise to lower stress.]

Various natural and alternative methods

Yoga, Homoeopathy, Aromatherapy, Reflexology and Acupuncture, among others, are known to be very effective in dealing with stress. They provide an integrated approach to stress and its management.


Relaxation is virtually impossible if your body isn’t maintained properly. Being overweight or underweight can create serious health problems. Correct diet will promote a general positive feeling and calm.


Hyponotherapy is a valuable means of treating stress-related illnesses. Increasing numbers of medical and mental health professionals now use hypnosis to overcome the pain of chronic headaches, backaches, childbirth, cancer, severe burns, dental phobias, and more.

Personal growth techniques

Living positively is a wonderful way to live. There have been numerous studies done which prove the link between good health and positivity.


The aim of massage is to relieve muscular tension, to alleviate fatigue and revive energy. Many of the benefits of massage come through the healer-patient contact. A practised masseur is able to use his or her hands to communicate feelings of harmony and relaxation. The actions of massage – stroking, kneading and pulling — detoxify the body, improving circulation and lymphatic drainage.


If you have difficulty reducing the stress in your life, seek professional help. Many people find psychotherapy a very useful and rewarding therapy. Some people feel that simply talking to complete strangers, in fact, therapeutic.

Persistence Pays

Stress management is the need of the hour. However hard we try to go beyond a stress situation, life seems to find new ways of stressing us out and plaguing us with anxiety. Be it our mind-body exhaustion or our erring attitudes, we tend to overlook causes of stress and the conditions triggered by them. In such unsettling moments, we often forget that stressors, if not escapable, are fairly manageable and treatable. One just can’t wish away a situation. Moreover, one has to live through these situations in the right spirit, to make living a worthwhile experience. Don’t give up. Your ability to relax, learn to handle stress, and heal yourself, is tremendous. Change might not always come easy — you may feel stuck in your stressful habits – but you can do it. All it takes is patience, persistence.and time.

— with additional inputs from RAHUL Baji

Top Stress Relievers

  • Throw in some music and start cleaning house
  • Watch fish in the aquarium
  • Go gardening
  • Take a walk in the park with a Friend
  • Sing along with music
  • Cut down on some of your commitments
  • Walk your dog or play with it
  • Draw a picture
  • Dance to your favourite music
  • Work on becoming an pptimist
  • Take a mini-vacation
  • Pray
  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • Play music and start cooking something wonderful
  • Learn to say no to extraordinary demands on your time
  • Hug, kiss or stroke your loved ones.

Performance anxiety in students

By Manoj Khatri

In May 2004, a 16-year-old boy called Vijay Sharma murdered his mother. Newspaper reports suggested that the reason behind young Vijay’s brutal act was a “row over studies”. Each year, around May/June, just days before board results are declared, news about more than a dozen students in Mumbai taking their lives appear in various sections of the media.

A study by The Week magazine found that approximately 4000 students commit suicide in India each year, most of which are exam-related.

A survey conducted in New Delhi’s schools under the “School Mental Health Programme” found that nearly 70 per cent of students are suffering from stress and anxiety. Nearly one-third were reporting sleep disturbances while one-sixth were using over-the-counter medications for headaches.

When you learn about such disturbing figures, you know it is time for an awakening. It is time to find out what is it about our education system that drives students to take such extreme steps as taking their lives, going into depression or even killing others. Perhaps the answer lies in our obsession with marks. A report on says that when it comes to board results, “India is obsessed with the numbers, and some teenagers are so wracked by anxiety that they become ill, or worse.”

It is interesting to note here that the word “failure” is not necessarily used in its literal sense. Performance anxiety is not limited only to borderline students who have the danger of actually failing the exam. Those who expect 90 per cent but end up scoring get 85 per cent also tend to believe that they have failed.

Manifestations of Excessive Anxiety

Anxiety per se is not bad. It is only excessive anxiety that is self-defeating. In fact, anxiety to a certain extent is to be expected. In students, a little anxiety is good as it keeps them disciplined and focussed on the task. But, when the levels of anxiety begin to rise to the extent where they begin to impede the student’s mental, emotional or physical health, then it is time to take corrective action.

Factors that contribute to anxiety

The following factors are the primary factors that induce excessive anxiety among students.

Expectation from Self

Usually, all emotional problems can ultimately be tracked down to self. The self is the biggest victimiser of all. Based on conditioning that begins in their childhood, where performance is glamourised, students often place unreasonable demands on themselves and set themselves up for disappointment.

Parental expectations and demands

Every child is a unique individual with unique likes, dislikes, desires, aptitudes and so on. Parents often fail to recognise this fact and they can’t seem to distinguish their achievements from their children’s. As a result they begin to view their children’s success as their own. Many try to self-actualise through their children by forcing upon them careers that they could not pursue themselves. Typical stress creators that parents employ, intentionally or otherwise, include constant nagging, comparison with siblings and friends, sarcasm, and anger.

Peer Pressure: Comparing apples with oranges

Peer pressure is one of the most important stress inducers. Comparison is a trap that most students fall into very easily, not realising that each of them is unique and therefore comparison is senseless. Typically, comparison is always done with someone who is better than them. So, someone who scored 91 per cent considers another who scores 93 per cent better than him/her, who in turn believes that the one who scored 95 per cent is better.

Corporate World

It is common knowledge that a majority of corporate recruiters give undue important to academic performance while considering candidates for employment. Students from top educational institutes such as IITs and IIMs are given preferential treatment, grants, and many other privileges, making them the most sought after ones in the nation. Some of the top Indian and Multinational companies require IITs/IIMs as a pre-requisite for employment. This heavily-skewed-towards-academics phenomenon in our society has led students to mistakenly believe that the success of their lives depends entirely on their academic performance.

Society at large

Society views success from a very narrow perspective of academic performance. The society’s unreasonable emphasis on academic performance is evident in the way all sections of the media highlight toppers in board exams. The media simply reflects our society’s obsession with academic performance.

Irrational Beliefs: The Cause of Excessive Anxiety

According to Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy [REBT], the root cause of high levels of anxiety among students is irrational beliefs. Students are conditioned to demand nothing but the best from themselves and this is where the irrational beliefs surface.

Addressing the problem

REBT outlines several effective approaches to help students suffering from excessive anxiety.

Pragmatic approach

Students can be shown the futility of anxiety by highlighting the negative manifestations in the form of mental, emotional, and even physical distress. Self-defeating emotions such as guilt, worry, fear and anxiety often jeopardise the student’s real chances because of losing focus, falling ill or being immobilised.

Empirical Approach

Although there is no evidence that academic success guarantees success in life, there is excessive focus on only the academic aspect of a student’s life rather than overall development of the individual. Test of memory and mathematical skills dominate the education scheme whereas other aptitudes such as business acumen, artistic abilities, sporting talent, and many more gifts are often not explored or tested. To handle guilt arising from disappointing others, especially parents, students could be taught to communicate their concerns.

Examples, like those of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Dhirubhai Ambani, and Karsanbhai Patel can be used to prove the point that academic success is not a pre-requisite for success in life.

Logical Approach

Students could be taught that it is unrealistic to expect themselves to fulfil other people’s expectations of them at all times. Just because their parents, teachers, or the world, expects them to do something, it does not logically follow that they must do so.

Vishwa Shetty
Dr Vishwa Shetty is Stress Consultant at Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital, Powai Mumbai.


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