Stress is inevitable. Whether it's triggered by an attacking lion in a pre-historic jungle or by the sales quotas of the "corporate jungle" of today, it is a fact of life. Today's stress may even be more intense and unrelenting than that felt by our ancestors.
What is stress? Stress is essentially an internalized strain caused by life's challenges, burdens or pleasures. It is not an external force that is done to us. It is our response to a given stressor (a person, situation or circumstance). Anything that causes a change in life can be stressful. Stress can impact us emotionally, physically, cognitively, behaviorally, socially, and spiritually. Some stressors are the result of things happening to us; others are caused internally by our own expectations, values or perceptions. Stress by itself is neither good nor bad. Our ability to respond well or not to a stressor determines the value we place upon it.
In primeval times the stress response (the classic "fight, flight or freeze" reaction) allowed us to run faster or fight with greater strength in the event of a confrontation, such as meeting the aforementioned lion. Since today's society is free from such physical threats, the stimulation of adrenaline and other biochemical body reactions can negatively effect us through ulcers, heart attacks, hypertension or other stress related ailments. This is why mastering stress is important for us. (Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky, PhD)
How do I recognize when I am stressed? Each individual handles life's situations differently. Others around us can often note our stress reaction before we identify it. It is seen as a change from our normal demeanor. Emotionally, we may have increased anxiety, irritability, sadness, a shorter fuse, impatience or even apathy. Cognitively, our concentration and memory decline and we may be less decisive. Our sense of humor may be diminished and we may be less tolerant in our ability to deal with others. Physically, we may be prone to colds, aches and pains, headaches, and insomnia. Appetite and sleep may also be impacted. We may also pace, fidget, or have an exacerbation of nervous habits (nail-biting, smoking, foot-tapping, chatter, etc). Some people turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. This can lead to other problems.
Our response to stressors may be positive allowing us to get motivated, focused, energized, challenged, or meet a deadline. We term this as "Good Stress." On the other hand, when looking at ourselves, we may realize we feel overwhelmed, fatigued, are short with others, and are unable to get control of our lives. Negative responses like these make us feel tense, anxious, angry, depressed, frustrated or overwhelmed; thus they are labeled as "Bad Stress."
- Change requires adaptations whether it is positive or negative. (Moving, marriage, a new job, the birth of a child, divorce, or other changes are all stressful.)
- Threats to our values, beliefs, well being, or personal and financial security evoke a stress response.
- The loss of control makes us feel helpless and vulnerable. (Illness, loss of a job, or relationship problems can also stimulate our biochemical reactions.)
- Unrealized expectations may cause us to feel tense, anxious, and pressured.
What can I do about being overstressed? A good first response may be to evaluate any known causes of stress. Understanding the many forces pulling on us may lead to some immediate solutions. Develop a strategy to create longer term plans. Learn to accept the things that you cannot change. Try to adapt to change rather than resisting it. Take care of your body, mind and spirit.
Vanderbilt Health & Wellness Resilience Toolkit
The Stress Check-Up
WLC-EAP Stress Self-Assessment
The Road to Resilience
Keywords: Stress Management, Change, Mental Health, Resilience