What is stress?
Hans Selye stated that stress is, “The non specific response of the body to any demand.” While that broad definition may not make things any clearer, we know that there is “good stress” and “bad stress”. “Good stress” could be qualified as graduation from graduate school, getting married or learning a new job. “Bad stress” is a car accident, the loss of job or loss due to death.
While stress seems to be all around us, one thing seems common.
Most people focus on the stress and less on the management of stress.
In other words, most people can readily tell you about the sources of their stress, but may be less eloquent in describing what is working to help them manage their varied problems. Yet, the goal of stress management is not the cure for stress, but the management of it.
Picture in your mind that stress – or more precisely our reaction to the “stressful” event – is like a spring being compressed.
Visualize this tightened spring as the muscles in your shoulders or the tense muscles of your forehead. The more stress, the tighter the spring is coiled. The spring holds kinetic energy trying to be released. This energy is held internally waiting for us to take action. This call for action is known as the “fight or flight” response.
Fight or Flight Response
When I was a kid in the ‘60s, I used to watch Mutual of Omaha’s nature program Wild Kingdom. They would regularly feature some poor gazelle getting chased down by a cheetah. As a kid I never was sure if it was better to root for the cheetah or the gazelle.
If you have spent anytime watching the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, I’m sure you know the type of scene I’m talking about. It is the fight or flight response getting played out in its most natural raw form.
The “fight or flight” response is when our mind perceives a threat – real or imagined – our body becomes energized to take action.
The threat could be a threat to our physical safety, our emotional well being, the safety of another or to our way of life. The threat does not even have to be real in order for us to react to it; as long as we imagine a threat, our bodies will get ready to respond to the threat.
You have probably watched a scary movie. Sitting in a darkened theater you know that the movie on the screen is make-believe. You know that the people are acting, that the dialogue has been scripted, and that the scenery may be computer enhanced.
Even though there is no real threat, during a scary scene you might grab the person next to you, hide your eyes and become energized with worry, fear or anxiety. Your heart races and your body tightens. Its make-believe, and you know it, but your mind, then your body reacts to these imaginary threats.
Your “fight or flight” reaction is an autonomic, automatic reaction. It is built into your physical body with the purpose to help you deal with potential threats.
Being Stressed Out
The problem is not that you have this innate physical response. The problem is that your body is more likely to be activated to take action, or stay on a higher level of activation, for long periods of time. This is commonly referred to as being “stressed out”.
There is no shortage of stress nowadays. A common consequence of the modern age is that stress events happen faster and more often during our day. We are doing more and doing it quicker than any preceding generation. Most adults will readily lament about not having enough time to accomplish the things they want to within their day, week or month.
We have the common situation of feeling stressed out and needing to do something to lessen these negative effects.
When you are stressed, where do you show these reactions? Take a moment and think about this.
How can you tell you are stressed?
We know that stress symptoms can be physical, emotional or behavioral. Physical symptoms of stress include muscle tension, headaches, stomach upset or sweating. Emotional symptoms of stress can include being irritable, angry, crying or confused. Behavioral symptoms of stress can include being aggressive, yelling, over eating or alcohol and drug use.
We all have individualized ways we express our reactions to stress.
Why doesn’t everyone develop tight shoulders, diarrhea or over eat as a response to stress? Why don’t we all react the same way, and why do we show stress in the specific area/way that we do?
The simple answer is that we are all different.
The weakest link in your physiological system is where you show physical reactions to stress.
If your musculoskeletal system is weak, then you may develop muscle tension. If your cardiovascular system is weak, then you may develop high blood pressure, migraines or have a heart attack. If your gastrointestinal system is weakest, then you may develop an upset stomach, an ulcer or irritable bowel syndrome as a physical reaction to stress.
|While you and I may react differently to stress, there are two things that are important to remember.
1. Have a stress management plan. You do useful things to decrease your reaction to stress. And, for the most part, your plan works. If it did not, you would not be reading this right now and your friends would be visiting you in the hospital.
2. Successful stress management means changing your thoughts and behaviors. The reason this is true is because in the end, you can only change your thoughts and behaviors. These are the only things you and I have control over.
A useful question is to consider what we have control over and what we do not have control over.
Generally, we do not have control over other people, places and things. That leaves only ourselves to try and control.
We look forward to helping you take control over your stress management.