You say “I’m stressed!” — and you know you’re stressed. But just what is ‘stress’ — can you get a handle on it? More importantly, what is stress to you and what is your individual, personal experience with stress?
Instead of simply trying to deal with stress on an ad-hoc basis it may be wise to begin with a relatively long-term outlook, starting with defining stress, understanding stress in general, and your personal stress in particular. Achieving this initial understanding will in and of itself be the first step towards putting you in control. And it will allow you to cope with stress to begin with, manage and control your stress, and culminate in your ultimate conquest of stress.
In order to understand stress, first we need to agree on a definition of the word. So: what is Stress?
Dr. Hans Selye, a renowned endicrinologist (a doctor specializing in the endocrine glands), defined stress, at its basic level, as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” This strict and accurate, though somewhat nebulous, definition is not immediately helpful so we will have to break it down.
At this point, however, a few words about Dr. Hans Selye (1907-1982) are in order. Dr. Selye, a Hungarian by birth, is the ‘Father of Stress’, so to speak. An online search for his name will return over 300,000 hits! His insights, research, and findings earned him twenty honorary degrees and high honours and awards too numerous to list but it is worth mentioning that he is the recipient of his adopted nation’s highest honour, The Companion of the Order of Canada. The entire corpus of work on stress and even endorcrinology can be traced back to Dr. Selye, who authored nearly 40 books/booklets and 1600-plus technical papers. Much, if not most, of the developments in the field of stress derive from Dr. Selye’s work.
Let’s expand upon the basic definition of stress. Dr. Selye broke down the ‘demand for change’ and ‘non-specific response’ into two distinct types. This preliminary distinction is that stress, per se, is of two kinds: ‘good stress’ and ‘bad stress’. Say that your team wins the final match of a sports championship. What happens? You get a ‘high’; you feel euphoric. This is ‘good stress’, formally known as ‘eustress’. Note the common prefix between euphoric and eustress: ‘eu–‘ which means Greek for ‘good’. Eustress also manifests itself in other ways but each of these manifestations is, in some way or another, positive to the organism. Say you are a writer or artist and some event you witness provokes or arouses you to create a short story or a painting. This provocation, this arousal, is a type of eustress. Eustress causes little or no damage and its benefits typically outweigh any damage.
Now to the ‘bad stress’ which is technically called dis-stress — ‘distress’. The prefix ‘dis–‘ is Latin for ‘bad’. Distress is seriously bad for a person or any life-form, to the extent that it can slowly kill an organism. It is not for nothing that it is called ‘The Silent Killer’. Unlike eustress, distress has no ‘up-side’, it only has ‘down-side’ — big time.
In this and subsequent articles, for purposes of stress examination, stress avoidance, and stress control, let’s use the word ‘stress’ in its common, colloquial usage to mean distress, the ‘bad stress’. However, where we mean eustress, we use that word or, alternatively, ‘good stress’ or ‘positive stress’.
Having arrived on a definition of stress, the next step is to understand the nature of stress. It is after the nature of stress is understood that one can proceed to examining the causes, effects and symptoms of stress.
Now that we know that stress is a ‘response’ we can infer that it has a trigger or origin. This trigger or origin is called a ‘stressor’ which is usually an undesirable or harmful element in the environment. It induces an individualized reaction which, though you may feel it emotionally, is actually physical, i.e. the reaction is a physical one. The reaction to the same stressor can vary from individual to individual — what causes considerable stress in one person may induce little or no stress in another.
You should not be too surprised at hearing that stress brings about physical reactions — do you know someone who has experienced ‘the shakes’, palpitations, or hyperventilation/panting as a result of some stress-causing incident? These are the observable physical reactions to stress. However, the underlying reactions of the body’s systems to stress are completely invisible yet very real. Because they are invisible, they are insidious in corroding our wellness and that is why they deserve our full attention.
When you are subject to stressors and you cannot or do not know how to cope with them or how to control your stress, significant physical reactions are generated within your body, primarily by your endocrine glands secreting hormones — and that is harmful. These endocrine glands are primarily the thyroid in the neck, the adrenals atop the kidneys, and the pea-sized pituitary located at the base of the brain. Do you see a connection here? Dr. Selye was actually originally an expert endocrinologist! This brilliant researcher put the pieces of the endicrinology-stress puzzle together, giving us the ‘big picture’ we now have.
Corticosteroids are a good example of these hormones. Though they have a helpful function in nature, they are secreted by the adrenal gland as a result of external stressors. Unnecessary or prolonged secretion of corticosteroids is harmful and eventually this internal, invisible physical reaction to stress brings about external, observable physical reactions.
Prolonged stress leads to an accumulation of stress, more accurately an accumulation of hormones and secretions that have negative effects, and this has yet another physical manifestation: acceleration of the ageing process. Each time a person (or any organism) feels stress, it ages just a little bit. Dr. Selye demonstrated this with experiments. Indeed, we even know it, informally. You have surely heard someone saying something like, “my nasty boss threw a tantrum today — another grey hair for me,” or, “little Timmy’s close shave gave me a few grey hairs!”? There you go then: folk wisdom and Dr. Selye’s conclusions validate one another.
Stress is caused by your own personal reaction to external stimuli — stressors — and it is rooted in physical reactions, invisible and visible, and has physical manifestations, all the way to the ageing process.
Having understood the nature of stress we will proceed to examine its causes, effects, and symptoms in the next article.