Stress Management: Understanding stress
For most of us, stress has become an everyday part of our demanding lives. A bit of stress can boost our performance but when we constantly operate in an emergency mode our organism doesn’t bounce back from stress.
Many people think that stress is "just in the mind" as if it is not real and doesn’t have tangible effects on our physical and mental health. So they suffer in silence, thinking "it is just stress it will pass" or "everyone has stress" without being aware of the debilitating effects of stress on our health.
According to the American Medical Association, 75% of all illness and disease in the western world is stress-related.
What is stress?
Though in many ways stress is perceptual and linked to the mind, however stress is a biological response to any change - to the unknown, to a perceived threat - and it has direct physical, mental and emotional effects.
When we are confronted with a problem that we consider serious and we believe that we don’t have the resources (e.g. emotional resources) to deal with it we will perceive ourselves as being under stress (Cohen at al., 1995).
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting us from events that upset our balance or make us feel threatened. When confronted by a threat, the body prepares itself either to stand ground and fight, or run away; what is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response that has been extremely useful to our ancestors.
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing but...
Stress can help us concentrate and perform under pressure, it can keep us energetic, alert and motivated to face all kinds of challenges. Thank stress for studying for an exam when you wanted to go out and party all night, or for making a good presentation at work, for meeting a deadline etc.
When the challenge is over, it is followed by a relaxation response enabling us to build up the physical and emotional reserves to meet the next challenge. Stress becomes harmful when we don’t or can’t relax after meeting each challenge and end up being constantly uptight.
Too much stress can make you feel irritable, tired, angry, frustrated, anxious and depressed; it will harm your physical and emotional health, your relationships, your brain and memory, your productivity, your mood and it will seriously deteriorate your body and the quality of your life.
The body’s stress response
When we perceive a threat, our nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones (most notably adrenaline and cortisol) which prepare the body for emergency action. The heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, breathing is accelerated, muscles tense up enabling the "fight or flight response" (fight or run for your life).
This nervous system and hormonal activity shuts or slows down other physical processes - including digestion, reproduction, neuron growth in the brain and parts of the immune system.
Also, it increases the growth of the amygdala (the portion of the brain that controls certain emotions including fear and anger) making us expecting, perceiving and reacting to more "threats." So actually making us even more tense and stressed!
So what goes wrong?
We are able to manage the physical changes of stress when we don’t enter frequently to a "fight or flight mode," when we deal with the threat quickly and there is a relaxation response allowing the body to recover.
However if the body is subjected to frequent and / or long periods of stress, to intense stress levels or for various reasons the brain constantly perceives stressful situations, then there is serious damage to our physical and mental health.
Our bodies have evolved to respond to stressors (factors with the potential to cause stress) with an immediate action by altering their physiology for greater speed and strength.
When we encounter stressors in modern society, our bodies are altered in the same manner, although we do not use the changed physiology by responding with some physical activity (fight or run).
Therefore, we build up stress products - which include elevated blood pressure, increased muscular contractions, secretions of serum cholesterol and hydrochloric acid - that remain in our bodies.
Stress is the build up and accumulation of this physical changes and tension in the organism. Due to its accumulative nature through the years, stress wears you out and it will eventually overflow your emotional and physical bucket.
We can handle just so much in the bucket, and then one day, one more drop and the bucket spills over...
Most people are able to respond proactively to stressors, and when they do, their body physiology changes and they break the vicious circle of stress hormones.
Stress is not something we can avoid neither something we must tolerate. A stressed mind doesn’t nourish the body and stress is a red flag that our internal biology is out of balance.
I believe that reclaiming our sense of balance and well-being is essential. When we choose our response to stress we become emotionally resilient and manage stress in a timely and effective manner.
Understanding stress and its processes is the first step in responding proactively.