“Stress is the trash of modern life – we all generate it but if you don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life.” – Terri Guillemets.
We all experience stress from time to time but in reality it often means very different things to different people. Even an online search gives you multiple definitions, but for the purposes of a shared understanding we will work with Medterms medical dictionary’s version:
‘Stress: In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.’
Physical stress relates to the body and include stressors such as:
Mental (psychological) stress relates to the mind and includes stressors such as:
Emotional stress relates to strong feelings, and includes stressors such as:
Flight or Fright?
Stress is designed to help us not hurt us and has at its roots in survival. It seeks to protect you by preparing the mind and body for the challenges we meet in our daily lives. A stressor can initiate the “fight or flight” or the “freeze or feint” response. These are mainly an autonomic mechanism, leading to a cascade of stress hormones being released into the bloodstream, providing us with energy to adapt and survive.
This ‘fight or flight’ response helped our caveman ancestors navigate the typical physical stressors in their everyday lives, including the odd encounter with a Sabre-toothed tiger. As we in our modern lives do not experience life at the same physical survival level, modern stressors have turned into more psychological in nature.
Modern stress is now more often about how a person perceives the situation, rather than any real-life physical danger. While a physical stressor tends to be more acute, our psychological stress tends to be chronic and may not pass for some time. This leads us to spending most of our day with our stress response turned on, and this hits the body hard.
Although stress is largely perceived as negative, we should position ourselves to recognise that stress can be both friend and foe. It is unmanaged stress that is the problem. Whether something is considered good or bad depends on how we perceive it. Our experience of stress is mainly related to our reaction to the stressor and how much in control of a situation we feel. For example, bungee jumping may be considered a destress for some people (who consider it fun or a challenge) and for others it may feel extremely distressing.
‘Positive or Good’ stress (Eustress) stimulates us, pushing us to accomplish things, fuelling our achievements. Physically it supports and builds our bodies allowing us to keep going. Psychologically we are boosted to feel confident, motivated and up for the challenge. While emotionally we are primed by the positive feelings of contentment and self-belief. What is key to eustress, is its short duration, ceasing when a stressful experience is over. Once it becomes prolonged, it tips over into distress.
Characteristics of positive stress
Examples of positive stressors
‘Negative’ or Bad stress (Distress) puts us under considerable strain which over time has a weakening and destructive effect on our bodies and wellbeing. Psychologically we have memory and concentration problems, while emotionally we are weighed down by negativity. Distress is stress that is experienced too intensely (even over a short term) or over a prolonged time and can tip us into adrenal fatigue and burnout.
Characteristics of negative stress
Examples of Negative stressors
All stress big or small impacts us physically and mentally and therefore plays an influential role in our lives, affecting our moods and energy levels. This in turn affects relationships and performance. Unfortunately, the more we stress the more sensitive we become to it. With stress also being accumulative, without relief, it affects our overall wellbeing.
Stress works best as a boost of reserved energy, expended in the appropriate intensity and duration, followed by adequate rest and recovery before being bought into service again.
Too little stress can lead to boredom and demotivation, the right amount of acute (short term) stress fine-tunes the brain to improve performance, whilst too much can cause anxiety, and ill health.
As stress is an individualised event, with each of us being triggered by different stressors, we therefore experience and respond to these events differently. Consequently, the key to dealing with it, is to find your own balance.
It is important to bear in mind that stress is mainly related to our perception of the stressor. To dispose of it we need to have an awareness of what it is, and what the triggers are for our particular version. In becoming aware and more mindful we can start building the capacity to respond, and manage our stress in a meaningful and sustainable way. Finally, when you are feeling stressed, remember that you are not the only one; so be kind (to yourself and others) and know that this moment will pass.