We’ve all experienced it. It can range in severity from the mild to the debilitating. It can be constant or appear in sudden bouts. It affects us in so many different ways and there are so many different approaches to managing it. Sometimes it can be good for us. But what is stress exactly?
While it might be nice to imagine a contraption that could syphon off our excess stress when we’re feeling overwhelmed, stress isn’t a tangible substance that can be bottled.
In its simplest terms, stress is your body’s reaction to a perceived threat.
Now ‘threat’ is a vague term that will mean different things to different people. It doesn’t have to be a hungry lion that has just locked eyes on you. Some people experience intense stress in social situations. Public speaking anyone? Nope, not my favourite activity either. What about the threat of losing a job? Paying the bills?
Threats can pose immediate danger to your wellbeing (the lion) or they can be perceived threats that can niggle away at you over a long period (will I have enough money for bills next month?) Some threats are entirely imagined.
Mark Twain famously said: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
This refers to all those ‘what if’ scenarios that we usually torture ourselves with on a regular basis. (What if my new colleagues don’t like me? What if my car breaks down on the way to x? What if I fail the exam?) You get the idea.
Our bodies grapple with different stressors all the time as they try and maintain homeostasis. Heat, cold, microbial infection, and insufficient nourishment are all examples of stressors the body has to manage to keep us healthy. But usually when we speak about stress we mean our anxieties, fears, and misgivings and the negative impacts they have on our wellbeing.
But what causes that horrible feeling that usually accompanies stress?
When presented with a perceived threat, a cascade of physiological changes take place in your body. The effects are felt immediately, and with good reason. Imagine our ancient ancestors encountering a top predator. There wouldn’t have been time to really weigh up the situation and to come up with an appropriate strategy. They’d have been eaten. They needed instant action. Fight or flight. This means:
- an increase in breathing rate to get more oxygen into the blood
- glucose released into the blood
- an increase in heart rate to transport oxygen and glucose to the muscles
- pupil dilation to increase field of vision
- slowed digestive function
- peripheral blood vessels constrict to assist with damage limitation
- adrenaline realeased into the bloodstream
So, the unease we feel before giving a speech is a byproduct of an incredibly effective ancient survival mechanism. This can actually be beneficial. Stress can drive us to perform better. When there are stakes involved, such as a potential promotion, a performance to a live audience, a chance for your team to win a tournament, then stress can provide the focus needed for success. Once the stressful event is over, our body has a natural mechanism to return us to balance. So our heart rate and breathing returns to normal, along with all the other physiological changes required for a return to homeostasis.
Homeostasis is key here. Your body is constantly striving for optimal balance. Optimal temperature. Optimal hydration. Optimal pressure. Optimal health. Stress should be temporary. It is our mechanism for overcoming something threatening. Once the event is over we should be able to return to a relaxed state. Where things get dangerous is when stress becomes chronic. Maintaining a stress response for a prolongued period will eventually take its toll.
Stress is a normal part of life. I think we can all agree that stress can sometimes be a good thing. An athlete that feels no pressure to perform well at a tournament may not give his best performance, and a candidate for a job who feels no pressure to impress probably won’t outshine the rest. Would we manage our time so wisely if we had no looming deadlines? Would we be as motivated?
But of course stress is more complex than that. When stress stems from the inner dialogue in your mind, or from social circumstances for example, it is extremely challenging for your body’s relaxation mechanism to do its job. This eventually manifests in health complaints, such as headaches, inability to sleep, and compromised immune systems. Either we help our body to return to balance or we start down the path towards ill health and exhaustion.