by Scott Zarcinas MD
Interestingly, the term “stress” wasn’t used in the common vocabulary until the 1930s. Until then, stress mainly described physiological, mechanical, physical, and biological forces, but it took an endocrinologist to popularise the word as we know it today.
After studying the behaviour of laboratory rats, Dr Hans Selye came to define stress as:
“AN INAPPROPRIATE PHYSICAL RESPONSE TO ANY DEMAND”
Words such as pressure, duress, strain, and catch phrases such as “under the pump”, “high maintenance”, “up the creek”, and “in the doghouse”, all refer to various levels of stress, but instead of helping to clarify the term “stress” they only seem to add to its vagueness.
Eighty years on, however, stress has come to mean anything from a minor concern about what to wear to a party, to relationship difficulties, workplace deadlines, and global financial crises, so much so that the word has become a complex and ill-defined entity.
There are many other words available to choose from, but the words you use are important because they not only reflect your understanding of what stress is, they are also a reflection of how you personally experience stress.
Like love, everyone has a unique personal relationship with stress. What is stressful to some is a walk in the park for others. Some seem to thrive in high-pressure environments, whereas others tend to wilt and fall apart.
Stress also depends on perspective. To an engineer, stress is some quantifiable mechanical force acting within a structure being built. To a parent, stress is a baby that won’t stop screaming, even though all its needs have been attended to.
A look through the dictionary also reveals many various definitions of stress that encompass:
- Situational events
Stress is a noun, a verb and an adjective. Furthermore, stress can be acute or chronic.
There is also “good” stress, called eustress, which enhances function, such as strength training in the gymnasium. In contrast, there is also “bad” stress, called distress, which leads to a deterioration in function or “burnout” (which we will refer to in the next section 1:3 The Human Function Curve).
In short, the definition of STRESS IS A MESS!
The term “stress” therefore needs to be simplified into a common, agreeable definition, a definition that will facilitate the implementation of psychological tools and techniques that are designed to reduce the impact of stress on our state of being.
But before we do that we need to broaden our understanding of the origins of stress.
THE ORIGINS OF STRESS
Evolutionists explain the origins of stress on the instinct to survive. The “fight or flight” response, as it is called, can literally save us, either by instigating a fight against the current threat to our lives or fleeing to a place of safety.
You may take a minute to reflect on recent experience(s) you have had of the “fight or flight” response.
During the fight or flight response, hormones called adrenaline and cortisone flood our body, heightening our senses and reflexes in order to deal with the imminent threat.
Blood and oxygen are diverted away from non-essential organs – such as our stomach, gonads, liver, and pancreas – and re-routed to supply the parts of our body that will require extra sustenance – our heart, sensory organs, muscles, and brain.
Once the threat has been dealt with, however, adrenaline and cortisone return to normal levels and our body returns to its original, more passive state.
In the past where lions, tigers and other predators roamed more freely than today, the fight or flight response meant the difference between eating dinner around the campfire with one’s family or being the dinner itself.
In today’s world, though, we are not likely to come face-to-face with a savage predator, yet we still experience threats to our personal safety.
You might like to take a minute now to make a list of events you consider threatening.
At such moments as you have just listed you are experiencing precisely what your ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago, even though our world today is a much safer place to live.
Yet why do we still have stress? Is there anything we can do about it? Is the complete absence of stress a realistic ambition, or does it have at least some benefit?
NEXT SESSION: How To De-Stress & Prosper – 1:3 The Human Function Curve
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