Stress is mostly unavoidable, but contrary to popular belief, it is not just negative. In many instances it’s beneficial. How we are affected by it, and how we manage it, determines a lot about how successfully we achieve our goals, and manage various aspects of our daily lives.
Stress is many things to many people. For most, it’s the cumulative effect of having too much work to do and not enough time to do it, while dealing with outside forces such as family, society, and health commitments. In a psychological sense, stress is the anxious or threatening feeling we experience when we interpret or assess a situation as being more than our psychological resources can adequately handle.
Stress is a psychological and physiological interaction that comes in two forms: acute stress (which we experience as immediate, often resulting from a specific situation, such as needing to complete a large project on deadline) and chronic stress (long-term stress, usually as a result of having too much to do, and not enough resources — psychological, financial, and temporal — to complete everything).
Stress is linked to what scientists have called the fight-flight response. The fight-flight response is an evolutionary mechanism that we as human beings have developed to prepare us for threatening, novel or challenging situations by arousing the body into a state of action readiness — the decision to stay and fight, or flee. If you stop to think about it for a moment, you’ll be aware of plenty of situations where you have experienced the fight-flight response in action. Maybe a fear of public speaking, and your last-minute thoughts on not presenting, caused your respiration and heart rate to increase, as well as your palms to begin sweating. These are all physiological aspects of the fight-flight response.
An optimum stress level
We all operate on a stress continuum. At the low end of this continuum you may find that you lack motivation and concentration, and easily become bored. At the other extreme, where stress is too high, we can become overwhelmed and suffer from a range of side-effects including insomnia, deep muscle pain, fatigue, and high blood pressure, to name a few. Immense stress can cause our immune systems to begin shutting down, making us more susceptible to viruses, infections, and other illnesses. In between both these extremes is a moderate stage, often termed the optimum stress level.
The optimum stress stage is where we reach our zone of best performance. Staying in this zone means that you are keeping your body in the prime level of fight-flight response; you are ready for stressful events, you’re at a heightened state of alert, and you’re still functioning at a healthy level.
Determining the right level of stress
People operate at differing levels of stress. Some go about their daily lives successfully at a low level of stress, some need to operate in the optimum range, and others are capable of being most productive under high levels of stress.
Interestingly, some people operating at higher levels of stress are incapable of functioning within low levels, and viceversa. For example, have you ever noticed that sometimes, when you are working long hours, and firing on all cylinders, you can go for weeks (or even months) at a significantly reduced level of sleep/ recuperation, but once your life returns to a more stable balance, and you start getting more sleep, you swing in the other direction and feel that you are continually tired/rundown? This is because when we are operating in the heightened levels of fight-flight response, we are keeping our bodies tense; ready for action, and we are using a great deal of our natural chemical, adrenaline, to stay in this heightened state of alert. You may not be consciously aware of this heightened state, but physiologically, you may be getting less sleep, and eating more to maintain the fuel in your body. When we switch between arousal levels, and reduce/increase gears, it takes time for our bodies to readjust as our energy levels deplete or increase accordingly.
Positive and negative stress
Stress is caused by stressors in our environments and stress is our response to these challenges/stressors. Stressors can include:
- major adjustments/life changes;
- relationships – friends, families, and spouses;
- financial issues;
- legal problems;
- and health problems.
This list is by no means exhaustive. However, while the majority of the items above are negative, stressful events can also be positive. For example, a wedding is a very positive event, but the lead-up, including the preparations and managing all aspects of the special day, can be very stressful for the bride and groom, not to mention their immediate friends and family. Although positive events tend to be more rewarding once the stress is over, the actual stress experienced can be no less and no more intense than the levels experienced in a negative situation.
Long-term excessive stress
Commonplace stress such as the stress experienced in a daily job, or an entrepreneurial side-income venture, can cause us to continue to operate at unhealthy levels of stress. Sometimes we actively take on more stress, perhaps becoming project manager on a second large project at work, or choosing to pursue more prospects/ clients in our business ventures, and this causes us to operate at a higher level. This is where stress can become damaging. Using the analogy of a car, if you run it at high-speed, continually, you need to keep the fuel in it and service it regularly.
You can only go so far on one tank of fuel. Eventually, you need to stop, refuel the vehicle, and maybe even get some sleep if you’ve been driving all night. The way you deal with stress is the same. Eventually, you need to take a break, recuperate. Your body needs to rest and relax, or it will become fatigued, and you may experience lower morale.
If we leave our stress levels unchecked, and do not ensure that we get the appropriate amount of recuperation and downtime, these excessive stress levels begin to take a toll on our energy reserves and our ability to function effectively. Using the car metaphor again, there are four stages, outlined below.
All cylinders firing: During this phase, you will be up to the task and face challenges with a huge energy reserve.
Running low: After a period of time, your energy reserves decrease, and you may begin to feel very tired. Anxiety and frustration may occur. Work quality may reduce.
Stranded: Work quality will reduce as productivity decreases. You may begin to feel failure, and illness will likely increase. You may even start to distance yourself from your work/goals.
Crash: If the high stress levels continue unabated, and you do not take time to relax and recuperate, you may experience depression, burnout, nervous breakdown, or some other form of serious illness.
|Side-effects of stress|
|Stomach symptoms: discomfort, pain, pressure, high acidity levels|
|Muscle pain and tension: occurring in neck, shoulders, and back|
|Fatigue: exhaustion, without physical activity|
|Headaches: tension or migraine headaches|
|Eating problems: overeating, or appetite loss|
|Insomnia: inability to sleep, or inability to stay asleep|
|Bruxism: grinding teeth during sleep|
|High blood pressure/heart pounding|
|Worsened asthma/respiratory problems|
|Recurring colds and flus|
Coping with stress
Have you ever noticed how one person manages multiple tasks, runs a family, works full-time, and runs a part-time business, firing on all cylinders throughout and never missing a beat, while another person is ready for the nuthouse under half that amount of pressure? It all depends on our individual responses to stress. Being aware of your stress levels is the first step towards coping effectively with stress. You must listen to your body, and become aware of when you can continue pushing it, and when it demands rest, relaxation, or increased sleep.
The first step to coping with stress is to identify when a stress reaction is beginning. Early warning signs include headaches, sweating, irritability, sleep problems, and the most common: fatigue.
You can reduce your stress levels by:
- setting more realistic expectations on yourself;
- setting more realistic goals;
- taking time to relax during the day (even if only for five minutes);
- changing your diet (eating more nutritious food);
- reducing your caffeine and alcohol intake; and
- turning to other people for support.
Sometimes, because we are so busy and have so much going on, we find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what these stressors are. Some psychologists and MDs have suggested keeping a stress diary, with details of stressors and stressful events as they arise, and the reasons why they were stressful, to help people identify the causes of their stress levels.
So next time you feel like you’re completely overwhelmed and your stress levels are too high, stop and take a minute to see where you can make the necessary adjustments in your life to experience less pressure and enjoy your life more.