Causes and Symptoms of Stress

Our bodies are equipped to deal with stress, but the causes of stress have changed in everyday life. Exams, financial worries, relationships and health can all be a cause of stress. Work-related stress can also cause worrying symptoms and affect our health and mental health. Some recent studies on stress have come to some interesting conclusions.

Causes and Symptoms of Stress

Stress at Work

A US study examined the impact of bullying bosses on employees. Published recently in the Journal of Management, the study reviewed over 400 studies which examined workplace behaviour. Having a supervisor or boss who actively engages in negative behaviour towards their staff, including unfair treatment and micro-management, can affect an employee’s attitude towards their job and see them withdraw the voluntary extras which can become an everyday part of a job. Employees who perceived their boss’s attitude as unfair could engage in behaviours such as starting their job late, doing their tasks incorrectly, refusing to put effort into their work and extending their breaks.

The study focused on employees who felt that their boss’s behaviour was unjust, and noted that sometimes the symptoms of stress meant that people weren’t able to do their job properly. The conclusion of the study suggested that businesses needed to take action to reduce the amount of abusive managers. They suggested that fair policies and procedures should be implemented, that employees need enough resources to be able to do their jobs, that they should offer stress management training and training on effective interpersonal and management skills for supervisors.

Stress for Medical Students

In the UK, a team of scientists have found that the mental health of university students could be improved if they were offered mindfulness training. The study was published in Education Research International and is available to read online. The students were considered to be at risk from mental health stress and had been offered the chance to join a mindfulness group by their GP. The students were medical students. The group ran for 8 weeks, and the students attended the group for 2 hours a week and were asked to carry out a 30 minute daily practice at home. They were taught awareness of stress triggers and symptoms, the workings of the mind, coping techniques, the importance of taking care of themselves and how to meditate. At the end of the programme, the students were asked to take part in 6 interviews and text surveys.

The students reported that they had found new empathy and communication skills with the patients they worked with. They were able to notice when their mind told them they were not good enough and they found the practices within the mindfulness useful to help them refresh and regain their concentration when studying for long days as well as helping them to cope with clinic situations and exams.

Mindfulness training is part of the curriculum for medical students in New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the USA, but it has not yet been implemented as part of UK policy. The GMC or General Medical Council recommends the use the mindfulness training to help reduce stress and increase resilience.

The scientists suggested carrying out a survey in the UK to discover how other medical schools are bringing mindfulness onto the curriculum to enable them to compare it to the other countries.

PTSD Stress and the effects on the Brain

A team of scientists have found that people who have experienced trauma may be unable to suppress their unwanted emotional memories because of the way the trauma has shaped their brain. The scientists from the University of Boston, suggest that the reason that a symptom of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is that people find themselves intensely living with the trauma again and again, is because thy have neural and behavioural disruptions to their brain. Previous studies have shown that someone who is healthy is able to suppress their emotional memories. The study was published in Science Direct and the abstract is available to read online.

The scientists used a functional MRI scan to check out the memory suppression of three groups: people with PTSD, people who had experienced trauma, but who did not have PTSD and people who had not experienced trauma and who did hot have PTSD, who were the control group. The scientists found that people who had experienced trauma, whether with PTSD or not, were less likely to be able to suppress their memories successfully. The scans showed that these people showed reduced activation in their right middle frontal gyrus, which is an important brain region for memory suppression, when doing a memory suppression task and found it difficult to suppress their memory successfully. The scientists suggested that this was likely to be just one of the factors contributing to PTSD.

Symptoms of stress include:

Feeling over-burdened, irritable or aggressive, feeling impatient or wound up, having thoughts racing round your head, feeling depressed and uninterested in life, loss of sense of humour, health worries, sense of dread, feeling neglected or lonely, and some people with stress may also have suicidal feelings or thoughts.

People’s behaviour is also often negatively affected, including:

Panic attacks, shallow breathing or hyperventilating, blurred eyesight or sore eyes, tension in the muscles,problems sleeping or staying asleep, frequent nightmares may also be a symptom of stress, sexual problems.

Physical or health problems might include:

Headaches, chest pains, clenching the jaw or grinding the teeth, high blood pressure, always feeling tired, heartburn. indigestion, constipation or diarrhoea and feeling dizzy and sick or fainting.

If you notice any signs or symptoms that you are feeling stress, then do make an appointment to see your GP.

Zhang, Y., et al., Why Abusive Supervision Impacts Employee OCB and CWB: A Meta-Analytic Review of Competing Mediating Mechanisms, Journal of Management, 2019

Malpass, A., Binnie, K., Robson,L.,  Medical Students’ Experience of Mindfulness Training in the UK: Well-Being, Coping Reserve, and Professional Development, Education Research International, 2019

Sullivan, D.R., et al., Behavioral and neural correlates of memory suppression in PTSD, Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2019

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