Stress. What is it really? What do we mean when we say “I can’t take the pressure?” Or “I’m stressed out?” Am I really? Is it a bad thing? Or do I actually need stress to get me going? A lot can be involved when we start a discussion about stress. And it’s important to understand a problem before we can begin to find solutions for it.
Let’s tackle the basics here with 10 top questions about stress:
1. What is stress?
When we talk about stress, we really should be talking about the “stress reaction.” Okay, so what is the stress reaction? In short, it is an evolved survival mechanism. Our senses transmit information about a situation and our mind has to make its mind up; Am I safe or under threat? If the decision is ‘under threat,’ the mind activates the ‘fight or flight’ response. This then equips the body to proceed with that course of action. It can occur in an instant, often before you are even consciously aware that there is a threat present. It’s about gearing you up to deal with the threat in order to survive, and then restoring you to your former (unstressed) state, once the threat has abated.
2. Is there a difference between pressure and stress?
The problem today with these words is that they have become so commonly used and now carry a host of meanings. Let’s keep it simple. Let’s think of ‘pressure’ (sometimes referred to as a stressor) as the thing that is applied to us and ‘stress,’ or more accurately, our ‘stress response’ as the response to that pressure. An example; your boss drops a big pile of paperwork on your desk requiring it to be completed by the end of the day (that’s the pressure being applied), You, upon seeing this, then stand up, scream and run out of the office (that’s your stress response).
3. What is acute stress?
Some dangers and threats are immediate. Back in the day, when we were living in caves, hunting and foraging for food to live, our bodies evolved to handle the various threats we encountered. Upon realizing that we were in the presence of a dangerous predator, say a sabre-toothed tiger, the stress response was immediate and all-consuming. Our breathing and heart rates soared, our adrenaline pumped, and all our energies focused on our immediate survival. This exemplifies acute stress. It demands a big response from your body, and hopefully it won’t need to be maintained for to long.
4. What is chronic stress?
Some dangers and threats last over a longer term. Back to the caveman. In addition to sabre-toothed tigers, there were other threats to survival. There were periods of hunger, competition for scarce resources, hostile environments, and a host of other daily physical challenges. Our bodies also used the stress response to adapt to these long-term threats. When food was scarce, our metabolisms and other bodily functions would slow down so our continued survival required less food. When bountiful times returned, so would our daily food requirements. This exemplifies chronic stress. It is our body’s way of surviving those longer term threats or challenges.
5. There’s no sabre-toothed tigers today, why should stress affect me now?
Whilst the stress response itself has not greatly changed, what we deem a threat has. Thanks to our mind’s ability to recall past events and think about future possibilities, we are capable of activating our stress response when simply imagining a threatening situation. So, unlike the Zebra who is only able to focus on the immediate threats, we can worry about a threat that might occur tomorrow, next week or next month, and subsequently activate our stress response. And the situation need not be life-threatening for our mind to perceive a threat and thus activate the stress response.
6. Do we all get stressed out by the same things?
The short answer is no. Take the example of Christmas. To some, it is a wonderful time for celebration, relaxation and reflection. To others, it is an incredibly stressful time that begins with the annual ritual of untangling the tree lights and ends only after the last straggling relative has gone home for another year. How can this be? Christmas is Christmas. This is true. The day itself, the 25th of December, is the same for everyone. But the values, customs, social beliefs, and past experiences that we bring to a situation determine its effect on us. Thus to some, Christmas is a source of great joy while to others, it can be a significant stressor.
7. Does my own mindset affect how stressed I get?
Absolutely yes, and in a number of ways. One of the things that determines how we will respond to something stressful is our perception of our ability to cope. Do we have the capacity (physically, psychologically and emotionally) to handle the threat or challenge that we are facing? What it boils down to is whether or not we believe we have control of the situation. If we believe that we do not, we may experience an increased stress reaction, maybe even to the point of panic mode. If that happens, we may become unable to decide upon a course of action, and indeed, lose control of the situation.
8. How does stress affect me?
There are three key ways in which stress affects us.
Physically: Some of the ways that stress can manifest itself in your body are sleep disruption, tiredness, muscle tension, lack of energy, headaches and viral infections.
Psychologically: These may be a little harder to spot and include lower motivation, negative thoughts, the inability to switch off, negative self-talk and anxiousness.
Behaviourally: There are some behavioural changes caused by stress that you might want be on the lookout for, like working through breaks, craving energy boosters, changes in appetite, teeth grinding and taking work home, becoming irritable, withdrawing.
While any of these warning signs may also point to other issues besides stress, and therefore consider seeking professional medical advice, do consider whether stress is a contributing factor.
9. Is stress all bad?
There is actually a positive purpose for stress, when used and managed properly. The stress response is activated as a result of our brain perceiving a need for action. The stress response engages our body, and we get moving. When the alarm goes off in the morning, it is the stress response that tells our brain that we need to get out of bed. The brain then tells the body, and alas, we get out of bed.
10. What could happen if I don’t manage my stress?
The stress response evolved to help us out of sticky situations, but it was meant to be turned on for short periods of time when needed, then turned off. However, if the stress response turns into chronic stress, it can contribute to the development of serious physical conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, stomach problems and even cancer. It can also lead to psychological issues such as clinical depression, anxiety and panic disorders.
To sum it up, the stress response is our body’s way of reacting to a threat. We respond to the situation at hand and return to our normal state when the threat has been resolved. It evolved to deal with short and even long-term physical threats, so problems arise when we can endure long-term psychological stress response activation. Over time, this kind of chronic stress can lead to real physical, psychological and emotional problems. Understanding how the stress response works, and applying stress management strategies to your life will go a long way toward preventing these kinds of problems in your life.