Practically everywhere we go, we hear about stress. It’s a constant pressure in our daily lives: stress about work, personal projects to complete, our personal life, childcare or eldercare issues, health matters, financial worries, employment security … the list goes on and on.

But it’s important to know a certain amount of stress is a normal part of our daily life -- and of dealing with any job or task we want to accomplish – and that too much stress can cause health problems.

Small doses of stress, for example, help us to meet deadlines, prepare for presentations, improve our productivity, and keep us on time for important things, like meetings and appointments.

To recognize whether stress is helpful or a hindrance, it’s important to know that different types of stress exist – and what the warning signs are for when stress creeps too far beyond what we’re meant to handle.

Acute stress

Acute stress -- the type of pressure we feel day-to-day, based on recent and anticipated events -- is the most common type of stress.

Acute stress can be both positive and negative: Positive stress can include job promotion, moving to a new home, having a baby or planning for a wedding, while negative stress can include loss of employment, financial difficulties, illness in the family or relationship problems.

Most transitions in our life can be stressful and we might feel it psychologically. That’s why it’s important to remember that stress is a normal response to many situations, especially where we perceive a threat or danger.

When our brain perceives a “threat or danger”, our in-built alarm system -- the flight and fight response -- becomes activated to protect us. 

Chronic stress

Chronic stress, on the other hand, can be harmful.

When stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged, the risks for psychological and medical problems increase.

Chronic stress is, in other words, stress that is felt very frequently. It is long-lasting, intense and so severe that we do not have any time to recharge our batteries or to relax. With chronic stress, the stress essentially becomes dysfunctional and, in turn, interferes with our daily functioning and negatively impacts our health.

It is important to seek help if you have difficulty coping with daily stressors in order to get help prior to entering the chronic stress cycle. And definitely if you think you’re already living with a chronic-stress cycle.

Stress warning signs

To help you determine whether the stress is your life is normal, here are some early warning signs of stress to be aware of:

  • Stress affects your thinking. You have difficulty concentrating or thinking, become more negative, start doubting yourself, lose your self-confidence, constantly worry, or have difficulty making decisions. You don’t perceive yourself as being able to cope with problems.
  • Stress affects your emotions. You become moody, have low morale, feel more irritable, feel overwhelmed, feel depressed or unhappy, or feel agitated and unable to relax. You feel a sense of losing control.
  • Stress affects you physically. You experience headaches, muscle tension, stomach problems, nausea, diarrhea, high blood pressure or a loss of sex drive.
  • Stress affects your behaviours. You might eat or sleep more or less, overindulge on sweets or carbohydrates, withdraw from social situations, self-isolate, engage in more nervous habits, such as nail biting, use more alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs, or neglect your responsibilities.

Coping with stress

It is important not to suffer in silence and to seek out appropriate help.

If you experience the early warning signs of stress, as noted above, over a period of time such that the symptoms become more frequent and intense, causing difficulty functioning in your daily life, then it is important to seek the help of a health-care professional.

Taking good care of yourself is an easy and important first step in reducing stress. Try these approaches: 

  • Try to reduce any negativity in your day-to-day life
  • Take an active approach to your problems, developing a plan of action and engaging in problem-solving -- rather placing energy toward dwelling on any issues or excessively worrying
  • Think about turning problems and challenges into opportunities for learning
  • Focus on your strengths and qualities
  • Appreciate the positives in your life
  • Prioritize, plan ahead and organize whenever possible
  • Delegate tasks to others when needed and when possible
  • Accept that not everything can be done or solved all at once
  • Reduce unrealistic high standards and perfectionism
  • Eat a healthy diet by reducing your overindulgence on unhealthy food; avoid the urge to eat food for comfort
  • Do regular physical exercise
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Avoid cigarettes or other drugs
  • Adopt regular sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene
  • Set a daily meaningful/pleasurable activity to give yourself something to look forward to: for example, watch a favourite TV show; read a chapter of your book before bed, take a bath, listen to favorite music on your way to or from work, or while running errands, go for a walk)
  • Seek social support among family and close friends