Stress Can Be Your Friend

When examinations are near, you'll probably see status updates like "10 more days to go!" or "Haven't slept in 40 hours" appearing in your news feed, and the most checked-in location would most likely be the school library.

Exams are one of the most pressurising and demanding chapters in life. During times like these, you may feel overwhelmed and your physical and emotional systems might get a little out of control.

What you're feeling inside is called 'stress'. So what exactly does it mean to feel stressed? What is the relationship between stress and your health? Let's find out.

What Is Stress?

When we feel threatened by something that may cause us harm, our bodies kick into "fight or flight" mode — preparing us to either stay and face up to the threat or escape.

This threat can be anything, from a hungry predator to a big presentation; it differs from person to person.

Stress is a normal reaction to every day pressures — it's not in itself "good" or "bad". Now, let's look at the signs and causes of stress, and what makes stress "good" or "bad".

Signs of Stress

Physical Signs

  • Health problems such as frequent headaches or backaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Trouble sleeping at night
  • Fall sick easily
  • Loss of appetite

Mental Signs

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Forgetful
  • Mental block
  • Sensitive to criticism
  • Lack self-confidence

Behavioural Signs

  • Resort to aggressive behaviour (e.g. hitting, bullying others) to solve problems
  • Lose interest in activities easily
  • Stay away from friends
  • Avoid tasks
  • Easily distracted, careless or accident-prone
  • Restless
  • Nervous habits, e.g. stammering or biting nails

Emotional Signs

  • Feel sad or depressed
  • Easily angered or irritated
  • Worry a lot
  • Afraid of something
  • Experiencing a sense of hopelessness

 A woman suffering from the effects of stress planning to seek medical advice from a health professional.

What Causes Stress?

The causes or types of stress include:

Survival Stress

When your body feels threatened by something that may cause you harm, your body naturally responds with a burst of energy so that you will be able to survive the dangerous and stressful situation (fight) or escape it all together (flight).

Environmental Stress

This is when things around you cause stress, such as noise, crowding, and pressure from work or family.

Internal Stress

This happens when you worry about things you can do nothing about or worry for no reason at all. Expectations that are high or unrealistic can also cause your stress level to spike.

Fatigue and Overwork Stress

Such stress is caused by working too much (long hours at work) or too hard at your job(s), school, or home. It can also be caused by not knowing how to manage your time well or how to take time out for rest and relaxation.

What's Bad Stress and What's Good Stress?

Bad Stress

No matter what type of stress it is, all of us have a limit to how much stress we can take, and for how long. Stress becomes a bad thing when we experience chronic stress or overwhelming levels of stress over a prolonged period.

This "bad" stress could come from work, school, or life in general, say the additional work you got "arrowed" to do after a co-worker quit, or the many demands of caring for your child and elderly parents at the same time.

Some signs that we're too stressed:

  • You get irritated and frustrated easily.
  • You keep forgetting things and you're making more mistakes than usual.
  • You lose your appetite and feel tired most of the time.
  • You have difficulty sleeping well through the night.

"[Bad] Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realise you haven't fallen asleep yet" - Unknown

Good Stress

On the other side, good stress energises you to perform at your best, and gets you excited to face challenges and motivated to finish tasks. Good stress gives us the added "push" or drive to hit our life goals.

You might have experienced good stress as the "ready to chiong (charge)" feeling you get before a big presentation, or that sense of anticipation you get to complete the furnishings before moving into your BTO flat.

  • You feel excited before a presentation or competition.
  • You feel motivated to complete a task.
  • You express interest in living life to the fullest, setting goals in life.
  • You get that 'extra' energy to perform at your best

Stress in small amounts = Good stress

It can keep you on your toes, ready to rise to a challenge.

Extreme or long-term stress = Bad stress

It can wear your body down, leaving you feeling depleted or overwhelmed. It can even weaken your immune system.

So How Do You Cope With Bad Stress?

A healthy diet and plenty of physical activity is an essential tip when it comes to stress management. But what else can we do to counter work stress or exam stress?

Plan Your Time & Activities

  • Create a daily to-do list
  • Keep a calendar to schedule not only your to-dos and also time out for yourself
  • Divide the tasks that seem large or difficult to complete into smaller sub-tasks

Keep Tasks Small

Dealing with big tasks can feel overwhelming — where do you even start? Divide them into smaller sub-tasks that are less intimidating and work on them one at a time.

For example, break that huge report into smaller pieces: research, point-form outline, intro, first chapter... then focus on one sub-task at a time. This will keep the stress level more manageable.

Make a List

Make a to-do list so you can keep track of your tasks (and sub-tasks). This will keep you focused on your top priorities for the day.

Plus, you'll get that sweet sense of satisfaction from ticking the checkbox each time you complete a task, which could give you extra motivation to keep chipping away at your list.

Visit MindSG for more tools to take care of your mental well-being.

Download the HealthHub app on Google Play or Apple Store to access more health and wellness advice at your fingertips.

Read these next:

  3. Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual review of clinical psychology, 1, 607–628.
  4. Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual review of clinical psychology, 1, 607–628.