Most of the time when we hear the word stress our immediate reaction is to think of that gut-wrenching feeling we have when we face certain situations at work or in our relationships. Why is this?
A large part of it is our brain’s chemistry. Stress is such a powerful emotion that it calls into function some of the bodies most powerful chemical soldiers namely, cortisol, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline. The brain also has a range of neuro-transmitters in it’s armoury and uses them to achieve a level or preparedness in the face of battle. We also have a strong memory function that seems to trip into action very quickly when faced with similar situations that look like a danger to your body.
Sometimes this reaction is so strong that even events around you that are not life threatening can trigger a full on panic attack. Your brain is alert to any danger and even if you are safe it will sometimes put high pressure on you to change your behaviour or chosen path in it’s endeavour to protect you.
Dean puts it this way:
“The Amygdala is a small almond shaped set of nuclei that sits in the brain. Its job is to send out certain chemicals to the body when needed, that cause you to feel fear, anxiety, doubt and even depression.”
“…The Amygdala is alerted by other parts of the brain when you are in a situation that may be detrimental to your health or well-being, or that is not in line with what you want. As was the case with early primitive man, the Amygdala would send out chemicals to the body when danger was present such as a large carnivore, thus
creating a sense of fear…”
(Dean Whittingham, Reprogramming the Mind for Success, Introduction to our Bodily Mental Systems p5)
So you can see that you have a very powerful friend in the brain, however, it can work against your conscious intention at times.
So let’s Define Stress
Stress refers to how the body responds to any number of physical or emotional stimuli (i.e., stressors). Effects of this response are sometimes seen in the body such as an increased heart rate, respiratory rate, sweating, skin problems or tense muscles. Other changes may not be so easily observable: increased blood pressure and metabolism. Continued exposure to stressors will often lead to mental and physical symptoms such as anxiety, depression, heart beat irregularities and muscular pains and aches. If you cannot find a way to effectively manage stress, various physical and psychological disorders may develop which may be serious enough to cause disability and even death.
So how can stress ever have a useful function in your daily life if it has such a huge potential to change your intentions?
Well some stress is good for you but too much isn’t.
Low levels of stress, for short periods, get your resources moving and get you motivated into tackling the tasks and problems in your life. This can be accompanied by positive emotions such as excitement, pleasure and even satisfaction.
Eustress and Distress
To distinguish this beneficial stress, Hans Selye, one of the pioneers in the field called it Eustress – Eu meaning good.
Eustress can be defined as a pleasant stress. We can’t always avoid it, in fact, sometimes we don’t want to. Often, it is controlled stress that gives us our competitive edge in competitive or public performance activities like athletics, giving a speech, or acting.
An excess of stress from a situation of under or over stimulation, going on for too long produces at first unpleasant feelings, and then physical damage and fatigue and ultimately even death as we noted above.
Not surprisingly Selye called this level Distress – dis meaning bad.
Selyes’s distinction is a valuable one. It recognises the inevitability and desirability of having some stress in your life while guarding against its ill effects.
In opposition then to the popular belief of stress being an undesirable phenomenon, stress can represent the body response to pleasure or pain. As Hans Selye puts it:
‘Stress is the body’s non specific response to any demand on it whether that demand is
pleasant or not. Sitting in a dentist’s chair is stressful but so is enjoying a passionate
kiss with a lover – after all your pulse races, your breathing quickens, your heart soars.
And yet, who in the world would forgo such a pleasurable pastime simply because of the
stress involved. Our aim shouldn’t be to completely avoid stress but to learn how to
recognise our typical response to stress and then to try to modulate our lives in accordance
(Selye & Cherry, 1978 p60)
Not all stress is bad
So we have our answer then – not all stress is bad stress. Sometimes we need the functionality of stress to trigger body responses that will give us an edge in a given situation. We can have stress that is the determiner of life saving action or preparing us for something pleasurable e.g. sex, wining a race or preparing for an important event like giving a speech or performing a song on a stage.
Some important questions are then;
Is the stress we have in our lives the useful, friendly eustress or is it the dangerous, life threatening distress?
How do we control distress and use eustress to our advantage?
What strategies can we use to control stress in our lives?
These I will investigate in another post.
Until then – destress your life carefully!