stress - an introduction
The science of stress
Science can often be a complex area to understand: the technical jargon used, references to detailed research and lengthy reports can leave us feeling that we are out of our depth.
Stress as our internal protector
We often hear that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. A certain amount of stress is healthy, as it results in high levels of alertness and cognitive performance. However this is only true to a certain extent, and does not mean the more stress you encounter, the healthier you’ll be.
Despite the fact a great deal of stress can affect health, it can actually benefit us by acting as an internal protector. For example when we encounter a situation that has previously caused us stress, the stress response we experienced helps us to adapt in the way we need to in order to stay calm and relaxed. It reminds us of the danger and hopefully, what we need to do this time in order to be safe.
Ask yourself: if you were to get attacked in the middle of the street, resulting in loss of possessions through no fault of your own, would you blindly allow yourself to be victimised similarly in the future? No, of course not, you would do anything in your power to prevent the situation from reoccurring, such as taking a different route or travelling with others in order to maintain your physical and mental health.
So why don’t we do this when our body reacts to stressful events?
On a day to day basis, we all encounter threats that we do not feel we are able to deal with, whether it be a deadline that has suddenly crept up, the death of a loved one, divorce, or something as simple as household chores. There are many times we reach the realisation that some things aren’t worth worrying over. For example doing the dishes. We say to ourselves ‘it’s no big deal’, yet for some reason, time and time again, we find ourselves making these tasks a priority, subsequently saying ‘no’ to something else. Will saying yes to household chores result in saying no to spending time with friends and family?
There is a common misconception that stress only causes psychological harm, and therefore this damage can be rectified with a simple change in our thought processes. This belief is what has led to increased heart disease, diabetes and cancer. We underestimate the negative impact stress can have on our bodies.
Although most of the time we are aware of what exactly causes our stress, preventing it can present another set of hurdles. It seems like no matter what mindset we force upon ourselves, those palm sweating, head hurting moments just won’t seem to go away. Why? Well, the stress response is a natural biological response to perceived threat or danger. However by understanding it we can become aware of both the triggers and resulting bodily responses, and begin to change the ways in which we talk to ourselves when a scary situation is occurring.
Understanding the biology can help us to respond better in future
As human beings, we have an instinctual drive to understand why things happen, and once we gain this information everything seems to be clear and make sense.
This principle can be applied to stress: once we understand the process that occurs within our bodies, we can allow ourselves to feel more relaxed during these times. Knowing that stress increases our heart rate means that when the heart is racing, we can tell ourselves that it is a biological process, and that our heart rate will return to normal very soon.
As we have previously mentioned, science can often be a complex area to understand due to the technical jargon used and therefore many of us convince ourselves we are out of our depth. However all you need to do is relax, breathe and take your time, patience is key. Your body will take care of the rest, unless of course the stressor is repeated.
The difference between one off and chronic stressors
There are two different pathways that can be activated during an encounter with a stressful stimulus, depending on whether the response is due to immediate danger, for example stepping out into the road as a car comes racing by, or whether the response is chronic, when the body has to deal with constant stressors such as struggling to pay the bills every month.
With regards to the immediate stress response, when we come into contact with a stressor, the physiological reaction that occurs in our bodies, determines whether or not we face the situation head on (fight), or we avoid it (flight). This concept was originally stated to occur during harmful events that were a threat to an individual’s survival however in today’s pressured society, this isn’t always the case.
Many of us find events stressful that do not threaten our survival and therefore it is important to deal with these in order to maintain our health. The chronic response keeps the body alert, although when this process is repeated too often, it can start to cause harm to your body such as reducing immune system functioning, leading to health issues arising. It is this situation that causes the most harm to health and where some stress management tools and techniques need to be applied.