Stress is a complex and multi-causal phenomenon that affects many individuals, and it is not surprising with the pace of life in Western societies. Stress is a reaction, which manifests itself as mental fatigue that appears as a consequence of demands or performance that are superior to those we can bear, and can cause health problems not only on a psychological level, but also on a physical one.

Interview with Ana María Egido, expert psychologist in stress

From Psychology and Mind we want to address this issue with an expert psychologist in stress. This is Ana María Egido, psychotherapist at El Prado Psicólogos, one of the most important clinics in Madrid.

Jonathan García-Allen: Good morning, Ana. Stress is considered one of the great evils of our time, but what is stress and what differentiates it from anxiety?

Ana Maria Egido: Stress is an automatic and natural response of the body to situations that are threatening or challenging for the person. Therefore, stress is an adaptive response that depends on the demands of the situation as well as on the person’s own interpretation of the resources and capacities he/she has to face it.

If the person interprets the situation as a challenge, that is, interprets that he or she has resources and capacities to face it and that its achievement will have positive and motivating results for him or her, the stress is considered positive and is called with the term: “eutrés”.

On the contrary, if the situation overwhelms the person (overload, lack of time, lack or absence of resources and capacities to face it) or the person interprets that it will have negative consequences for him/her, it is called: “distress”.

Although the terms anxiety and stress have certain common components, they are actually different processes. On the one hand, anxiety is an emotion that arises in the face of a possible threat, it is an automatic reaction and that the person experiences as unpleasant. However, stress is a more global response, it is more a process that allows us to adapt to the demands or challenges of our environment.

Among the reactions that occur in the stress response may be anxiety, but there can also be other reactions: joy, anger, sadness, etc.

What are the main causes of stress?

According to numerous studies, the main causes of stress can be: natural disasters, loss of a loved one, financial problems, overload and lack of job satisfaction, problems in personal relationships, separation or divorce, lack of free time or poor time management, preparing a wedding, the birth of a child, obsession with perfection…

What symptoms indicate that a person is suffering from stress?

The stress response has three manifestation routes, therefore, the symptoms can be of different nature. Symptoms at the physiological level are: increased breathing rate, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased tension and energy support in the muscles (glucose and acids in the blood), dilation of the pupils (increased visibility), weakened immune system, decreased sexual response, tiredness or exhaustion, among others.

The second way in which stress symptoms manifest themselves is at a cognitive level, this translates into: memory loss, lack of concentration, depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, nervousness, etc.

Finally, the third way in which it can manifest itself is at the behavioural level and refers to the consequences that stress has in the family, social and work environment. Among the symptoms of this level we can find: avoidance of situations that produce fear, smoking, eating or drinking in excess, isolation, restlessness, crying, etc.

The wear and tear it produces can be felt in different aspects of our quality of life. What effects or consequences does stress have on our health?

As we said at the beginning of the interview, stress is an answer or a process by which we adapt to the challenges of the environment in which we live, therefore, our organism is biologically prepared to live stress responses throughout our lives.

Therefore, there are no irreversible consequences for our health unless these types of stress responses are sustained over time and are exaggerated or excessive. In that case we can differentiate between acute stress diseases (skin rashes, acne, headaches, muscle aches, digestive problems, shortness of breath or chest pain, etc.) and chronic stress diseases (anxiety, depression, addictions, insomnia, nervous colitis, migraines, sexual disorders, high blood pressure, heart attack, etc.).

What is the difference between acute stress and chronic stress? Which is more harmful?

Acute stress refers to situations in which the person faces challenges in a brief and intense way, these are situations in which we have to develop a solution response in a sudden, evident, easy to identify and generally reversible way.

However, chronic stress refers to a person’s exposure to stressors over long periods of time (months or even years), many times they are stressors that go totally unnoticed because they are part of our routine (they are not so intense or easy to identify) and they are much more dangerous to our health, often causing diseases of a more permanent, serious and sometimes irreversible nature.

In the work environment there is talk of “burnout” or syndrome, but what exactly is it?

Burnout syndrome refers to a form of chronic occupational stress. This type of syndrome occurs especially in professions in which people are dealt with directly (health care personnel, teaching professionals, customer service positions, etc.).

Its main characteristics are feeling physically and mentally exhausted, progressive demotivation when performing the work and loss of empathy and interest in people. It is a dangerous syndrome that must be detected as soon as possible in order to put in place the appropriate means as soon as possible. It constitutes a serious damage both to the person who suffers it and his family, and to the company and people he serves in his daily life.

I could read on your website that, at the Prado Psicólogos, you have designed a program to reduce stress.

Our stress reduction program is designed to take place in approximately 10 sessions. Although we follow a previously elaborated plan, we always adapt to the needs and demands of each person. We start with education in emotions, explaining to the person what stress is, helping them to identify the situations or people that trigger it in their case and the symptoms by which it manifests itself.

Once we know well the causes and symptoms in your particular case, we draw up an intervention plan to prevent their appearance and minimize and reduce their adverse effects. To do this, we have a type of psychological treatment that combines innovative techniques among which are, organization and time management techniques, sleep hygiene techniques, hypnosis and self-hypnosis, creative visualization and relaxation, mindfulness, etc.

Our program is designed both for work stress and for people who suffer from stress in their personal lives.

Do you also offer a stress reduction program for companies?

Yes, that’s right. We are aware that nowadays the working environment is one of the main sources of stress and we consider that it is very important to help both companies and workers to handle and manage this issue in a professional and rigorous way. These types of programs contribute both to the well-being and health of workers and to increasing performance and productivity, in turn reducing absenteeism (one of the main consequences of work-related stress).

What advice would you give our readers to prevent the appearance of this phenomenon?

There are many things we can do in our daily lives to prevent stress from becoming a danger to our health and well-being.

First of all, we have to read about what stress really is and not be afraid, since it is an answer that allows us to survive, adapt to our environment and manage to solve the challenges we encounter (both positive and negative).

In order to prevent or minimize its adverse effects, I recommend following several tips.

First of all, it is essential to seek social support. The support of people close to us is one of the best ways to alleviate the negative effects of stress. The importance of
social support has been demonstrated through different studies on the subject. Similarly, in our social relations we must learn to say no.

It is also essential to organize and manage our time. Many times we are overloaded and many times we do not use our time properly. It is important to free up our demands and to know our time and space limitations, and at the same time to dedicate a few minutes a day to schedule our tasks and time for rest in a balanced way.

It’s important to laugh, to laugh out loud. Laughter is health, it helps generate positive moods, it increases our internal strength. It is a medicine within everyone’s reach and without side effects.

On the other hand, I also recommend looking for moments in the day when, for a few minutes, we can breathe deeply in a quiet place where no one bothers us.

In addition, it is good to listen to relaxing music and enjoy nature, take a walk in a park or, if you have the possibility, along the seashore or a river. Look for a place accessible to you where you can connect with nature and feel all the stimuli that you find in your path (listen to the sounds, observe the different landscapes, also use touch and smell to be fully nourished by that place).

Another tip: take a hot bath, not a quick shower, but a bath or shower with all your senses and knowing that this moment is providing you with the calm and well-being you need.

Finally, practice your hobbies: read, cook, do sports, sing, dance, etc. Whatever your hobby is, do it with full attention.