What is Stress?
Stress is a concept borrowed from physical nature that connotes the application of a force, which may be internal or external, on an object. In Physics, factors that determine outcome, in such instances, include the internal characteristics of the receiving object (strength of material), the amount of external force being applied, the duration of the applied force, and the circumstances around the interaction – such as application of heat, which may change (weaken or strengthen) the original strength of the receiving object. The object may break or be elastic and stretch without breaking; it may also tear, explode, or it may become stronger (such as steel, from raw iron ore); or become more valuable, such as the purification of impurities from gold via smelting at extremely high temperatures.
In terms of human relationships and functioning, stress connotes situations where individuals are subjected to forces that places them under pressure. It should immediately become apparent from the analogy in the opening paragraph, that stress, by itself is not necessarily always a bad thing. What determines the outcome of a stressful situation is our inner strength of material (resilience or vulnerability); duration of the stressful situation; the amount of the applied stress; as well as the milieu in which the stress is being applied (environment – work or family; as well as the available social support system).
It is best to perhaps briefly explain the concepts of resilience and vulnerability at this juncture. The best analogy I have come across for illustrating these two concepts is to think of them as having two balls, made from different materials. One ball is plastic and the second ball is made from ornamental glass. If you were to throw the ornamental ball against a brick wall with force, it will shatter into pieces. This ball depicts vulnerability. However, if you were to throw the plastic ball, really hard, against the same brick wall, it will bounce back to you, none the worse for the impact. Repeat the exercise a million times and the plastic ball will keep bouncing back. This captures the essence of resilience.
It is important to appreciate from the get go, that every human being is a unique admixture of resilience (to certain types of stress and situations) and vulnerability (to other types of stress). We all have our strong points/areas as well as our weak/vulnerable points. This is an important concept to keep in view, as it is pivotal to understanding stress and stress management in the different facets of our lives.
Some degree of stress provides us with the impetus to strive to do more and to overcome challenges. The fear of failure, for instance, drives us to study hard for an examination; to work hard at our jobs in order to succeed and justify our position; to manage our family life and derive satisfaction from it and so on. However, overwhelming stress which persists for very long durations or become pervasive may eventually cause health challenges – both physical as well as mental health challenges.
Thus, stress can occur in every setting of human interaction: home/family; work; community; religious setting/organization; interpersonal relationships etc. Stress may also be physical (manual physical strain/work load, having a chronic and severe physical illness such as cancer or HIV, caring for a sick relative, having many young children to look after and housework with no assistance, physical abuse etc.); psychological/emotional (verbal and emotional abuse, bereavement, work place bullying and intimidation, sexual harassment, divorce, changing jobs or moving house etc.); financial stress (bad deals, being swindled, insolvency, unemployment, inability to pay bills etc.); Relationship or marital stress (misunderstandings, clash of values, infidelity, etc.); Religious stress (loss of faith, questioning long held beliefs, or becoming very religious that distorts previous relationships) and so on.
What happens when you are stressed?
The body has an in-built protective mechanism which automatically kicks in when we are confronted with danger. It responds by releasing stress chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which gets the body tense and ready to fight for your survival, or to enable you to escape. Thus, these chemicals cause your heart to start beating very fast, in order to pump more blood to your muscles; the muscles themselves become tense; your brain starts to have racing thoughts and burns energy by going into overdrive; your stomach produces acids and knots; and you feel the urge to eliminate waste from your body (sudden and urgent feelings to void or use the toilet). In the short term, these are helpful to overcome danger…such as the sight of a snake in your room or office. But when these changes in your body continue for a long time as a result of pervasive stress; your body interprets it as a threat to your wellbeing, and the negative consequences of longstanding stress will appear.
Symptoms of stress
These may be physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, and behavioural symptoms. The common symptoms are listed here. Physical symptoms may include stomach upset, difficulties with sleep, frequent headaches, excessive tiredness, loss of interest in sex, and change in appetite. Emotional effects include anxiety, irritation, anger outbursts, heightened frustrations, feeling weighed down and overwhelmed, emotional exhaustion or burn out, reduced motivation and lack of zest. Behavioural problems may include turning to alcohol and drugs to reduce tension and help relaxation, temper tantrums, unwarranted violence, becoming reclusive and avoiding social interactions, or becoming completely disinhibited and engaging in high risk behaviours such as gambling, and sexual indiscretions. These symptoms tend to have a multiplier effect on the individual, loved ones and family, as well as work colleagues.
Over the long term, prolonged stress may cause physical disorders such as increased exposure to infections (from weakened immune systems), hypertension and cardiac problems, ulcers etc. It may also cause mental health problems such anxiety disorders or depression, or lead to suicidal behaviours.
How can we manage stress?
If you identify that you are feeling stressed, the most important consideration is to identify that you ALWAYS have options. Start by evaluating the situation and decide if it is something within your control to influence (such as relationship difficulties) or if it is outside your control (such as a toxic work environment). If it is the former, then you can appraise your options and apply problem-solving techniques to engage and resolve the issues. However, even if it is the latter, you are still not helpless: you can weigh your options and may decide to walk away….if you can afford it. Or begin to seek employment elsewhere, or plan your exit. Or you adapt and learn to cope and not take things too personal. Thus, mitigating the personal impact on you and your life.
Other very helpful strategies for overcoming stress include regular physical exercise (releases feel good chemicals that promote relaxation); employing humour to diffuse tense situations and to keep the big picture in view; investing and nurturing relationships – with family, friends and colleagues; taking breaks – not necessarily expensive vacations but may be a visit to the beach for a quiet stroll and meditation alone. Spirituality or religious activity may also provide solace and comfort for some people. Engaging in a charity cause for altruistic reasons is also helpful to provide balance…and it evokes a deep sense of satisfaction and well-being, when we do something for a good cause.
Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises are also very helpful – when you feel stressed and tense, simply place your hands on your abdomen, and take a deep breath (intake for 4 seconds); hold it in (for another 4 seconds); and then exhale slowly through your mouth (for about 6 seconds). You can practice this with your eyes close. Complete 10 – 15 cycles and you will immediately feel calmer and more relaxed.
Stress is an unavoidable component of daily living as human beings. However, it is within our control to ensure that we are not subjected to overwhelming stress that may break us down. There are many simple, inexpensive strategies for managing stress levels to ensure we do not suffer harmful physical and emotional consequences from stress. It is therefore, not the stressful situation or nature of the stress alone that determines outcome; but how we allow it to affect us is critical – and this is entirely in our hands. We can always deflect, cope better or remove ourselves from the situation.