What Is Stress?

Everyone knows the word stress. We talk about feeling stressed, other people being stressed, something being stressful, the world being in a stress epidemic and so on, but many people don’t know what stress really is and how much it can affect us. I will attempt here to give a brief overview of this huge and multi-faceted topic; how stress affects us, identifying common stressors, and pointing in a direction of how to develop strategies for coping better with stress and becoming more resilient.

How Stress Affects Us

One useful definition of stress from the Health and Safety Executive is: “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand being placed on them.” However, it is also really important to be aware that the perception of what is excessive, and even what is a pressure, will be subjective and vary from person to person. What we find stressful and how we cope with it will depend to a large degree on our perspective on life, the level of resilience we developed during childhood and how we were taught to manage pressure and change.

Stress can affect us on all levels of our being: physical, mental/emotional, spiritual and behavioural. Physiologically the stress response starts in a part of the brain called the amygdala, also called the brain stress box. Whether it gets activated or not is determined by the interaction between the logical and emotional part of the brain and once it starts, it activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which then activates the hormonal response. Once this is activated we are dealing with the usual responses of fight or flight, depending on what hormones are activated. This will be dependent on learned and habitual behaviour, so some people will have a tendency to fight, whereas others flee.

Once the stressful situation has passed, the other branch of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), calms the stress response and restores biological functions to their normal levels. It relaxes the body and is also called the ‘rest and digest’ function. When the PNS is activated and strong, we are at our baseline of well-being and resilience and without the PNS we wouldn’t be able to live.

The sympathetic nervous system is really important for allowing us to act, get things done and engage with our environment, but the problem with stress today is that our stress response was developed to deal with sudden, intense moments of stress, which would then be resolved, and we would be restored to our baseline of well-being by the PSN. The stressors we are dealing with today are often both more chronic and abstract than e.g. being chased by a pack of wolves, so we end up in a situation where we experience chronic and sustained stress, which can have detrimental effects on both our physical and mental health due to the constant disruptions to the function of the PSN.

Photo: Stefano Pollio

As mentioned, stress can affect us on all levels of our being. On a physical level it can be the cause of e.g. tension, headaches or other tension pain, insomnia, digestive problems, physical exhaustion, reduced immune function and palpitations. On a mental/emotional level it can contribute to anxiety, depression, mental exhaustion, impaired memory and ability to concentrate, lack of confidence and more. Spiritualy we can lose our sense of meaning and purpose and start to question what we are actually living for. However, it can also work the other way around, in that having lack of meaning or purpose in life can lead to us feeling stressed.

Common Stressors

While how we deal with and perceive pressure is highly individual, there are some some situations or events that are considered common, major stressors. These include bereavement, divorce or relationship breakup, relationship conflicts, moving or housing issues, financial problems, unemployment, work pressures, addiction, illness or living with a disability. It’s important to note that these issues won’t just be stressful for the person experiencing them. Having a loved one who is struggling with addiction or illness can be a major source of stress for people, as can having someone in your close circle moving away or going through a crisis of some kind. Humans are social beings, and if we have any degree of emotional intelligence or empathy we will be affected emotionally in some way by the struggles of people close to us.

At the moment of writing Covid is rampant in the UK and elsewhere and will be a major source of stress for people, both because of the effects of the actual virus, but also because of the disastrous economic consequences it has had for nations as a whole and for many people individually. On top of that we are, in order to control the spread of the virus, unable to access our support network in the same way we usually would, which can be a further cause of stress and affect how well people cope with it.

These major stressors that we will all experience at some point in our lives are not the only stressors that can undermine your health and resilience. We all experience small, frequent stressors that happen so often on a daily basis that we don’t even notice them or feel the effect of them anymore. Dr. Rangan Chatterjee calls them ‘Micro Stress Doses’, and the cumulative effect of these small stressors that can be as detrimental to our health and coping mechanisms as one major stressor can be. The cumulative effect of the small incidents in daily life can also undermine our coping skills to such a point that when one major event comes along we have no resistance or resilience left.

It’s worth noting that not all stress is bad. Experts talk about optimum stress as being the perfect balance between being challenged and knowing we have the resources to cope with it. At optimum pressure we feel excited about a challenge and are effective, creative, alert, and stimulated. Boredom can be a source of discontent and stress too, and can leave us apathetic and lacking goals and future vision. So, as with much else in life, it seems finding balance is the way forward when tackling stress.

Waving or Drowning? Photo: Nikko Macaspac

It’s also important to keep in mind the individual and subjective element of stress. Whether or not something is a stressor to us depends entirely upon how we see it and the effectiveness of our strategies for dealing with potentially stressful situations. What is optimum pressure for some will potentially push others over the boundary of their resilience. This internal element depends e.g. on your level of trust in yourself, how much control you feel you have over your life, your psychological strengths and tendencies (e.g. people who have a tendency to ‘catastrophise’ will probably not be very good at dealing with potential stressors), your innate levels of resilience, as well as how your role models when you were young handled pressure and change. The good news is that it is very possible to take action and to work with these internal factors to improve how we manage stress.

Becoming Stress-hardy and Resilient

“You have the power to affect the balance point between your internal resources for coping with stress and the stressors that are an avoidable part of living. By exercising this capacity consciously and intelligently, you can control the degree of stress you experience. Moreover, rather than having to invent a new way of dealing with every individual stressor that comes up in your life, you can develop a way of dealing with change in general, with problems in general, with pressures in general. The first step of course, is recognizing when you are under stress in the first place.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Just as stress is an individual experience, so too will the strategies we find useful in coping better with it be. However, just as the physical stress response is similar in every human being and the major stressors would affect most people in some way, so are there things we can do to support ourselves to become more resilient that will be beneficial to everyone.

The first step in tackling the effects of stress is to make sure we have a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Stress can have a negative effect on us physically right down to the cellular level, but experts are starting to find out that the cells do not get damaged by stress in the same way when we have a healthy lifestyle. This is good news, but it does require us to make a conscious effort to eat and drink healthily, exercise, sleep well, get fresh air and access nature, look after our mental health etc.

One of the unfortunate effects of stress is that it can lead to unhealthy behaviours and coping strategies, such as smoking too much, increased alcohol or caffeine intake, eating more sugar or processed foods, addictive behaviour, drug abuse or avoiding exercise. All of these may make us feel better momentarily, but in the long term they can cause big problems for both our mental and physical health. Making sure we develop healthy and helpful habits to look after ourselves on physical level will also most likely spur us on to start looking after ourselves mentally and emotionally, as well as just making us feel much, much better about ourselves.

The second step is to find a method or practice that can help us become more aware of ourselves on an emotional, mental and physical level. We can’t manage our hormonal responses consciously, but we can work consciously with our thoughts, expectations and emotional reactions, that all play a part in how we perceive pressure and our ability to respond. This will then over time affect what it takes to activate the stress response and hopefully help us manage pressure more effectively. Increasing our capacity for awareness will be of great help when going through stressful times, as it will enable us to become aware of how we are reacting to it and be able to take a step back and gain some kind of perspective. There are various practices that can help us with that, mindfulness meditation being one and Eurythmy as mindful movement being another.

A third step can be to become conscious of our expectations of life. Discontent and unrealistic expectations of both ourselves, others and life in general can be a major source of stress. In the book ‘Toxic Stress’ Dr Harry Barry writes about how young people today are the first generation who have access to less material and financial comforts than their parents and that this can be the cause of huge discontent. People also often have unrealistic perceptions of how much they can achieve, what they ‘should have’ achieved by now and perfectionism is a huge problem for many people as well.

If we can adjust our expectations so they are realistic in relation to our present situation and let go of what we think it should be or what we want it to be, we are much more likely to develop a sense of contentment. Practising gratitude for what we have can be a major step in developing contentment with what we have and managing negative emotions.

Finally, having a strong and supportive network of family and friends can be essential to developing stress-hardiness and resilience. Connecting with people and being able to share can lessen the emotional impact of a stressful situation and help us develop coping strategies and find solutions. Loneliness can be a major source of stress in itself, so if you haven’t got a strong social network it might be time to take steps to growing it.

This is just a brief overview of a selection of strategies you can adopt to lessen the impact stress has on your life. They are all things that I have personally found essential in managing stressful periods in the past, and practices that I work with all the time. There is much information about stress available both online and in books, you can read more about resilience and eurythmy for resilience on my site and the following sites are good for a more in-depth look at stress.




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