What is stress?

by Dr Jeff Bailey

Let us begin with the obvious question – are you stressed? Is it normal to be stressed? What do you think? Do your family and friends constantly use a lot of idiom to suggest you relax, for example, Cool it, Hang loose, Don’t sweat the small stuff, Loosen up and so on? Do you have the tools and skills to manage and relieve your stress?

If comments are being made about you it is possible that you have elevated stress. But what is stress to one person is responsible behavior to another. People have quite different values about how well organized you should be.

If you believe that you have a certain personality type, you can actually have your personality tested. There are many tests that do this, the most common one being the Myer-Briggs. You have probably heard about Type A and B personalities. Friedman, a cardiologist, saw many people with heart conditions and he called them Type As.

We are stressed when a range of activities (stressors) in our daily lives present us with challenges, alternatives, decisions, complex or unpleasant events or interactions. From a technical point of view, a stressor is something that speeds up our reaction or response levels. Our body has been conditioned to fight or flee. Our physiological response is to pump adrenaline or cortisol into our system to prepare us for the challenges.

For some, financial problems are the greatest stressor. For others, crowded rooms, crowded cities, the daily grind of an uninteresting job, even getting to work are constant stressors. For some, life events cause stress. My mother, 94 years of age, has just had radiation therapy for cancer. This is a worry for all the family. For others, recent deaths or relationship failures have elevated their stress levels. Stress can cause physical illness. About 50% of one’s response to illnesses is psychological – not medical. It is what we do in our heads that can resolve or inflame our levels of psychological discomfort – stress.

The reality is that all of us experience stress from time to time. There is positive stress, that is, a chemical, physical and/or psychological or emotional tension that produces an urge to create, perform, complete tasks, react and respond. On the other hand, there is distress, a level of discomfort that interferes with our emotional well-being and mental health. This form of stress can either be acute, that is, episodic and short-lived, or chronic (lasts for a long time).

Consider yourself in the workplace. If you have new challenges and demands and especially if there is a tight timeline you might feel stimulated and excited. Your stress levels will be elevated but if you are in control you might enjoy this extra pressure. What this means is that some stress can produce positive outcomes.

There are many words that we use when stress has become a danger to us. People tell me that they are burnt out or stressed out. They feel that they are less effective. Some people show physical symptoms of stress, for example, they might get rashes on their arms or neck. Some people show clinical symptoms like anxiety and irritability.

It is essential that we all know how to manage and overcome stress. It is rare that people tell us how to do this so we have to find good information to help us control the stress and tension in our life. We also need to know strategies that have been proven to be effective in stress reduction and stress management.

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