Looking after your mental health. Stress and stress management

By Mr. Leslie Chiuswa -University Counsellor

Email: counselling@africau.edu

or call: +263774068265

 “We are fearfully and wonderfully made”. Our bodies are made in a marvelous and intriguing way. The stress response system demonstrates that mental and physical health are inextricably linked. What happens to one system inevitably influences and affects the other. We shall discover in this discourse that stress is not an “enemy” but works for our well-being, provided it is at the basic transient or temporary level. Stress is meant to be a temporary mechanism to enable the body to adapt in the face of danger. Chronic stress becomes a serious issue with far reaching ramifications!


In this article, we ask:

  1. What is stress?
  2. How does the stress response system work?
  3. What are the Symptoms of stress?
  4. How does stress affect physical and mental health?
  5. What are the practical stress management strategies?

What is stress?

Stress refers to the physiological, psychological and behavioral response by an individual when the perceived (or real) threats are more than the available coping strategies or resources. Stress is caused by either internal (intrapsychic) or external stressors. Internal stressors are usually a habituated negative self-talk or rumination as we respond to perceived threats. External stressors range from inter alia traffic, noise, conflicts by and large things we have little or no control over.


How does the stress response/flight or fight system work?

When we are stressed, we communicate signals to the brain which is interpreted as a threat. In the past, our ancestors were faced with dangers in the hunter-gatherer stages and the stress response came to their aid. The following changes occur when we get stressed:


  • Changes in vision-Pupils in eyes dilate and vision becomes acute to give more attention to the danger
  • Dry mouth-The Mouth part of digestive system, digestion shuts down in dangerous situations, energy diverted towards the muscles (for a flight/fight)
  • Heart beats faster-To feed more blood to the muscles and enhances ability to run away.
  • Adrenal glands-Release adrenalin to quickly signal other parts of the body to get ready to respond to danger.
  • Nausea and butterflies on the stomach-Blood diverted away from the digestive system leading to feelings of nausea or butterflies.
  • Hands get cold-Blood vessels in the skin contract to force blood towards major muscle groups.
  • Thoughts racing-To enable quicker thinking to evaluate the danger, escape routes
  • Dizzy or light-headed-if we do not run away to use the extra energy, we begin to feel dizzy/light-headed
  • Breathing becomes quicker or shallower-To take in more oxygen as demanded by the muscles enabling running way or fighting
  • Palms become sweaty-When in danger, the body sweats to keep cool. A cool body more efficient.


What are the symptoms of stress?

  • There are several symptoms of stress inter alia:
  • Sleeplessness or oversleeping
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Panic attacks (extreme and debilitating anxiety)
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability or anger
  • Isolation/withdrawal
  • Poor work or academic performance
  • Lack of interest/motivation in life
  • Persistent worry/restlessness
  • Existing mental health issues get worse
  • Severe or chronic stress can lead to suicide ideation


How does chronic stress affect physical and mental health?

Chronic stress can hurt your overall health. The body is perpetually in a fight/ flight mode with the alarm system sounding constantly. Stress is meant to be a temporary mechanism to deal with impending danger, but when the system is inundated by hormones, the stress response not switching off, health dangers are inevitable as follows:

  • High blood pressure
  • Lowered immunity
  • Inflammation of the body
  • Migraine headaches
  • Stomach ulcers/peptic ulcers
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Drug and substances as a “coping mechanism”
  • Mood and anxiety disorders common as secondary diagnoses


What are the practical stress management strategies?

Please be advised that stress can never be eliminated but can be managed. Our lives are laden with stress inducing circumstances wherein resilience must be nurtured and cultivated. Suggested strategies are as follows:

  • Know and understand your triggers-We are different as people and therefore our triggers also differ. If you know your triggers well, you can prepare to manage these triggers beforehand
  • Identify your stress source-Is it academics? Work related? Marital relations? Family? In-Laws? Traffic? If you know your source, you can do something about it!
  • Relaxation exercises-When stressed, we end up in a state of heightened hyper-vigilance which results in uneasiness. Relaxation exercises are critical to and form the foundation for other strategies to work well. There are many relaxation such as:
  • Deep breathing
  • Guided meditation
  • Mindfulness-Using the five senses to be aware in the present
  • Aroma therapy
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Listening to soothing and soft music
  • Be active/exercise-Exercise a potent stress reliever. Endorphins are released which create a calming effect.
  • Challenge negative thoughts-When negative thoughts are not challenged, they cement and take control. When the “all or nothing” thinking is challenged, it gradually loses power and control. Most people when stressed do not look for alternative thoughts, they only think about “how bad things are…” Think about the alternative to every negative thought and also consider the blessings you have in life.
  • Journaling-A very powerful way to release tension and emotions. Writing down thoughts and the circumstances when the thoughts arise and keeping track of the thoughts.
  • Talk about it-Repressing or keeping stressful thoughts is a ticking time bomb! Find a trusted friend to share your concerns with or seek professional help in time.
  • Pursue hobbies-These can also divert your attention from thinking about stressful issues while the enjoyment from participating in a favorite hobby makes you feel good.
  • Socialize or connect with others-Socialization helps a lot in stress management.
  • Practice positive self-talk/affirmations-These counter the negative ruminations and thoughts. You can identify and list the affirmations you want to use and daily repeat them, the results will testify. There are so many positive affirmations Apps today which can also be used.
  • Accept the things you cannot change-There are certain stresses about things which happened in the past. Thinking about things that cannot be changed from the past results in chronic stress and draining of energy. The best is to look into the future with hope and prospects of better things. Where there is hope, there are better prospects of managing stress.



Stress is common, ubiquitous and unavoidable. It is the reason why we are able to deal with dangers confronting us. Without the stress response, we would be in constant danger without an alarm system warning us in advance. Stress enables us to put extra energy and motivation to the demands of life be it work or academics leading to better results. Chronic stress however implies that we are no longer in control and it is now imperative to take action. There are serious health ramifications if we do not deal with stress as outlined in the foregoing. Let us consider the practical stress management strategies outlined herein for better health and well-being. Our health is our responsibility, let us take it seriously. Remember, there is no health without mental health!!