Stress is all around us, it is part of modern life. Everyone is susceptible to it and no one is immune, but what exactly is stress and why is it important? That isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. We all think we know what stress is, but when it comes to defining stress there always seems to be problems. Is stress a mental thing? If it is why do we feel so bad physically when we are stressed? Surely a little stress is good for us, it gets us going and improves our performance? Why does someone get stressed when another person might not? Why do some things make one person stressed whilst another person has no problems at all?
Understanding stress may seem difficult, but it is really very logical when we understand the fundamentals. Stress must start as a mental phenomenon, something a person perceives, sees, hears, smells or touches. It is something we have learned to respond to in the past, perhaps because of adverse experiences. Some people learn different lessons, and of course some people inherit a susceptibility to stress in their genes.
Stress comes in response to perceived threat. It is as a response to a physical threat that the stress reaction was intended to be of help, but now physical threats are rare and the stress reaction is triggered by psychological threats – meetings and presentations, social events, air travel and things like that.
What is this stress reaction? There are three responses to stress, the psychological response of anxiety and apprehension, the physical response of the automatic part of our nervous system, and lastly the behavioural response. We feel nervous, we get stomach churning, shakiness and a tremor. We start to change the way we behave so as to avoid or otherwise deal with stressful situations. We become anxious, apprehensive and experience a wide variety of physical symptoms and altered behaviour, often without knowing why and certainly not knowing what to do about it. The cause may be to do with our work, domestic problems at home, financial difficulties, or perhaps for no real reason apart from small background stresses in different parts of our lives over a long period of time.
In the long term stress can cause permanent difficulties both of a psychological nature and a physical nature, making you permanently anxious and making you susceptible to physical diseases such as raised blood pressure and even infections. If your stress is long term and severe your life may be in tatters, but it doesn’t have to be like that. The stress response is a natural reaction to danger, real or perceived. It is normal and acceptable. In the face of physical danger stress in necessary and will help you to manage, but in other modern-day situations it can be destructive.
How can it be natural and normal, and dangerous and destructive at the same time? The stress reaction is normal when it is appropriate and proportionate. It is destructive and dangerous when it happens at the wrong times, in the wrong situations and when it is excessive. It can be managed and controlled if you go about it the right way. That may take expert help. You may have to “unlearn” lessons your body has learned over a lifetime. You may have to practice straightforward relaxation, breathing exercises and psychological techniques that can definitely reduce or abolish your inappropriate stress response. It can be done, you should do it and although not always easy, it is eminently possible. You will need help as no one can do it by themselves, so seek out books, tapes or advisers who can put you back on the right path and restore your enjoyment of life.
By Keneth Hambly
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