What Is Stress?

[typography font=”Myriad Pro” size=”24″ size_format=”px” color=”#0a2a8a”]WHAT IS STRESS?[/typography]

Let’s start at the beginning and explore the question, “What is stress?” Stress is a natural part of life. Everyone is stressed from time to time; but, it is difficult to define exactly in a way that fits everyone.

If you were to ask 10 people, “What is stress?” You would probably get 10 different answers.  Stress is subjective and stressors vary with the individual. Some love to go on amusement park rides and roller coasters while others would not do it if you paid them. Some people do their best work when facing a short deadline, others almost fall apart. Not everyone finds the same things stressful, and people respond to stressors very differently. That is why stress is so difficult to define. There is not a “one size fits all” definition.

Good and Bad Stress

Stress can be positive or negative. You may be asking yourself, “How can stress possibly be good?” The reality is that we cannot always avoid stress. In fact, there are times when you do not want to avoid it.

Controlled stress gives you the competitive edge in performance related activities like athletics, giving a speech, or acting.  A certain amount of stress will push you to work at peak efficiency because it improves your focus and increases your productivity. This positive form of stress is called eustress, which can be defined as a pleasant or curative stress.

Positive stress is what makes life exciting. For example – eustress is the stress you feel when planning a vacation, watching a scary movie, and looking forward to a happy event such as your wedding day or a new job. Eustress is vital for a healthy outlook on life. Without it, it is easy to fall into depression and believe that life has no meaning.

When you understand the value of eustress, you can often take a different view of the stressors in your life.  You can begin to view them as challenges rather than threats. Embrace them and let them energize you rather than let them overwhelm and frustrate you.

It seems to be human nature to zero in on the negative type because it is so noticeable.  We do not feel compelled to stop and take note of the times when we are feeling good.  But, we definitely notice stress when it is unpleasant and has a negative impact on the way we feel and act – it is difficult to ignore. This is when something needs to be done.

When steps are not taken to alleviate negative stress and you cannot see a way out of a miserable situation, you may develop what is known as chronic stress. This is the stress of unrelenting demands and pressure for extended periods of time. Because the situation seems hopeless, the individual stops searching for solutions. Chronic stress can be debilitating and even lead to serious health problems. This is discussed in more detail below.

How to Measure Stress

Because stress is so subjective, it is particularly difficult to measure. How can you measure something that is not consistent from one individual to another?  There is no consistency in the stressors, nor in the ways people respond to them.

Individual Responses to Stress

There are a myriad of possible physical symptoms that can indicate an increased level of stress in an individual.  The symptoms can include rapid heartbeat, headache, backache, sweating, upset stomach, diarrhea, muscle tightness, and many others.

As stated earlier, people respond to stress in their own way.  Eating is a well-known response to stress – but, again it varies from person to person. Some people eat very little or stop eating altogether, while others eat non-stop as a way of coping.

Stress is also often reflected in your mental state and behavior. Common reactions are: worry, irritability, frustration even over things that normally wouldn’t bother you and in the scheme of things are inconsequential. Difficulty concentrating, and feeling either exhausted or wired all the time are also fairly common responses for some people. Stress can go in many directions.

Acute and Chronic Stress

The severity of stress is influenced by the intensity of the stress response and the length of time that the stress response is active. If you are frequently exposed to a particular stressor, and you do not remove yourself or find a way to manage your stress then the effects will be more pronounced than those caused by a one time exposure.

The symptoms can be either acute or chronic.  Acute symptoms have an immediate onset, and you become aware of them quickly. Chronic stress builds up over time. Chronic stress may be the result of unrelenting stressful circumstances in the workplace, in personal relationships, or as the result of a medical condition.  For the medical condition, it could be the direct result of the medical condition or a consequence of try to manage health problems.  The point is that the stress is intense and lasts a long time.

Typically, the response to acute stress is meant to be short lived.  The stressor is present.  Your body responds to it in the most appropriate way it knows how until the stressor is gone.  Ideally, the body returns to its naturally calm state, and no real harm is done.  If the stressor is prolonged, however, then there could be more of an effect.  This is also the case if the stressor is presented repeatedly.

On the other hand, chronic stress encompasses situations where an individual is exposed to greater amounts of stress over a longer period of time.  This prolonged stress response can adversely affect an individual’s health.  It weakens your immune system.  Your body’s ability to fight off illness and infection is compromised.  This is true both for the common cold and for more serious medical conditions.  Chronic stress leaves you vulnerable to it all.

Not surprisingly, it also sets you up for cardiovascular disease.  You probably know about the connection between stress and high blood pressure, but you may not have known all the other possible effects.  It can cause irregular heartbeats, problems with your blood’s ability to clot, and hardening of your arteries.  It is also linked to heart attack and heart failure.

Consistently high levels of stress can also manifest as persistent muscle tension.  This can result in soreness or even muscle pain.  Problems of the neck, lower back, and shoulders are common in those who regularly experience high levels of stress.  Your body was not meant to experience high amounts of tension for prolonged periods of time, and it cannot handle them without starting some for of breaking down.

Stress can cause a host of other problems too.  Some of these are stomach problems, skin problems, and problems with asthma and other breathing difficulties.  Each one can be caused or worsened by the occurrence of stress.

Physical stress can result in overuse injuries.  Overuse injuries occur when muscles are exposed to a combination of repetitive movements and awkward positioning.  This can lead to tension, discomfort, and pain.  It is a commonplace occurrence in the hands, wrists, and elbows of computer-based workers.  Performing a task in an awkward body position once is not as likely to do much harm, but performing the same movement in the same awkward position every day is going to be detrimental to your physical health.

The fact that stress can lead to or contribute to serious health problems is cause for concern.  Society’s dependence on computers is only going to grow, and that will make these matters more relevant with each passing year.  The dependence upon computers is increasing these types of health concerns, and this issue is not going to go away until computers go fall out of fashion.  That is probably not going to happen for a very long time, if ever.  The long periods of time spent at home computers add in to this equation.  Everyone is at risk.

In this age of computers, stress takes on a new meaning.  As lives centre more and more around computers, more of the stress that people feel manifests in ways that are specific to working with computers.  Of course, some generalized responses will always be associated with stress, but computers bring with them specific hazards.  The mind and body can be stressed in different ways.  As computers take over more and more of your time, you will need to find ways to reduce the stress that their use places upon you.

The consequences of chronic stress are serious. Yet, many Americans who experience prolonged stress are not making the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce their stress levels in order to take care of their health.


Share