It is different things to different people. To a mountaineer it is the challenge of pushing physical resources to the limit by striving to achieve a demanding goal. To the homeward bound motorist it can be the hassles of heavy traffic and obnoxious exhaust fumes. To the student it can be exam pressure.
Take a piece of paper and write the word stress at the top. Now write down all the words and images that come to your mind as you think about this word.
Most people respond to the word stress in negative ways. They see it as a destructive, debilitating force. However, not all stress is negative. The word eustress has been coined to describe positive stress. Eustress results from exhilarating experiences. It is the type of stress you are likely to experience when you inherit a large amount of money or receive an unexpected promotion or reward. Eustress is the stress of winning and achieving.
Negative stress is distress. It is the stress of losing, failing, overworking and not coping. Distress affects people in a negative often harmful manner. We all experience distress from time to time. It is a normal, unavoidable part of living.
Stressors Cause Stress
Stress results from failure to adequately cope with stressors. Stressors could be loud noise, uncomfortable air-conditioning, debts, ringing telephones, broken relationships, unrealistic deadlines, discouragement, fear, pain and thousands of other things that impact upon us in the normal course of life.
It is impossible to avoid stressors. The only totally stress-free state is death! Stressors will always be there because we live in an imperfect and unpredictable world which is going to cause us to frequently get stressed. We experience stress as the body adjusts to the external demands placed upon it. Our body constantly seeks to maintain stability and stress is usually sensed as the body readjusts to too much pressure.
Scientists use the term HOMEOSTASIS (homeo = the same; stasis = standing) to define the physiological limits in which the body functions efficiently and comfortably. Stress disturbs homeostasis by creating a state of imbalance. The source of stress may be outside the body or it may originate from within the body in the form of blood pressure, pain, tumours, distressing events or disturbing thoughts.
We need to assist our bodies to cope with being stressed because our natural biological stress-adjustors are not ideally suited to the demands of modern living. Our bodies are well suited to cope with the distressing events faced by our primitive ancestors. The stressors faced by humans conditioned to a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle are obviously different to the distressing lifestyle of today. Our distant ancestors needed chemical responses to stress to enable them to trigger physical flight or fight responses to the perils and pleasures of hunting. These types of responses are inappropriate today. If you physically ran away from your workplace whenever things got on top of you then this would not enhance your standing in the Organisation. Conversely if you punch the boss on the nose when he/she gives you a tough time then the resulting dismissal and assault charges will generate considerably greater levels of distress. Consequently we need to develop special skills to deal with special stressors.
We are all very aware of specific distressing circumstances that affect us. As already discussed these assume many shapes and forms. In addition to the specific stressors there are also back-ground stressors that can have a more subtle but equally damaging impact on us.
The Consequences of Stress
One of the pioneers of stress research, Dr. Hans Selye wrote that ” … stress is essentially reflected by the rate of all the wear and tear caused by life.”
His research convinced him that the body has only a finite reserve of adaptation energy to apply to the stressors of life. Selye likened this reserve to a bank account upon which we can make withdrawals from time to time but into which we cannot make deposits. It is a non-renewable reserve of energy which we draw on throughout life until eventually it is consumed and death results. Some people squander their reserves and experience premature ageing as a result; others exercise more discretion and so they maintain a supply over a longer period of time.
Over a long period of time the stress response begins to take a toll on the body. One of the prime targets affected is the thymus gland (a mysterious pale grey gland that sits behind the breastbone, above the heart) which plays a key role in the body’s immune system. The thymus gland pumps out millions of lymphocytes each day to patrol throughout the body and to kill off bacterial invaders. Killer cells called macrophages literally eat invading bacteria. They operate in all parts of the body and we depend on them for our survival. Macrophages are weakened by a steroid called cortisol which is released by the adrenal gland when we experience stress. A weakened immune system makes us vulnerable to infection and this is why people under stress often experience regular attacks of colds and flu.
Psychological stress does have physical ramifications. We can do ourselves a great deal of harm by stressful thinking. We can flood our body with stress hormones and this can create a vicious cycle making us more and more stressful.