Scholarly debate rages on the exact definition of ‘stress’, however, what is important to understand is that it is a stimulus : response transaction; in other words: how our bodies and minds respond to stimuli (events, situations, items), either perceived or real.
Therefore, what causes one person stress does not necessarily do so for another. And not all stress is bad – ‘eustress’ is that positive, motivating stress that keeps us moving forward as a species; we feel it at the start of a new project, or when asking someone out on a date. Unfortunately our modern lifestyles are all too often characterised by distress, hyper-stress (over stimulation) and occasionally hypo-stress (under stimulation).
The first step on the path to managing stress and building resilience is to be aware that you are (negatively) stressed in the first place. “Although it may be difficult initially to recognise that you are stressed, once you are familiar with the signs you will be able to recognise them early on and can manage and reduce your stress sooner,” says Dr Monica Mercer, homeopath and general practitioner, “Research shows that an individual’s responses to stress remain the same irrespective of the cause for their stress.”
Once you acknowledge that you are stressed (ie. having a response) you can then work on identifying the causes (ie. the stimuli). Let’s look at both of these in turn.
The physiology of stress
Stress affects every system in the body. Forgive me for brutally summarising hundreds of years of medical research:
As a species we are programmed to survive. We have an inbuilt survival mechanism known as the ‘fight or flight response’ which, when we detect danger, readies all major systems in our bodies to either fight the situation or to run away.
Our bodies are flooded with powerful hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenaline and cortisol which have fundamental and significant effects on bodily functions:
- Our heart rate increases (all the better to pump more blood to our large muscle groups so that we can fight more ferociously or run away faster)
- Our pupils dilate and our field of vision narrows (to focus more acutely on the (perceived) threat)
- The bronchi in our lungs expand to absorb more oxygen (…which travels through our blood to the large muscle groups….)
- Our digestive and reproductive systems go offline and our immune system suppresses its functioning, as our bodies direct resources away from ‘non-critical’ systems and functions.
The problem occurs when we experience the ‘fight or flight response’ for situations that are not life-threatening. As much as we like to believe we are sophisticated creatures, in this one area, our survival mechanism supersedes our intellectual or cognitive abilities.
We react instinctively before we analyse. And the real problem comes in when we are totally unaware of this reaction – getting angry sitting in traffic, getting upset because your dinner guests are ten minutes late, or feeling nervous prior to a performance review.
Imagine your ‘fight or flight’ response kicking in 20, 50, 200 times every day and it’s easy to understand why the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that two-thirds of all visits to a General Practitioner are stress related.
Clinical psychologist and Scientific Chair of the South African Depression & Anxiety Group, Dr Colinda Linde, paints this powerful picture: “If we drove our cars like we drive our bodies – 24/7, over-revving, in the wrong gears, without regular services – there would be very few left on the road! We need to remember that our bodies and brains are vehicles, which will signal wear and tear and become less efficient if we do not actually rest and refuel them when they need it.”
Stress symptoms are our bodies and minds way of trying to tell us something is wrong, and we need to learn to listen. Symptoms can be broadly categorised as being either physical, cognitive (of the ‘thinking brain’), emotional or behavioural.
Identifying your stressors
Armed with a better understanding of the physiology of excess negative stress, let me now share with you a simple technique for helping you identify some of the main things that cause you stress. Remember, only you can control your stress; don’t outsource responsibility to someone or something else.
Take control and act. Over the next few weeks take some time to think about the three statements below and start building your own list:
- I don’t like doing….
eg. grocery shopping,
- These things make me sad…
eg. being taken for granted at work,
eg. cruelty to animals,
- These things make me angry…
eg. rude drivers,
eg. my boss,
FREE Personal Stress Test
As a reader of entrepreneurmag.co.za, you can take a confidential stress self-awareness survey that was compiled by several doctors. Go to www.vitalstest.com and enter ‘entrepreneur’ as the employer code, and follow the simple on-screen instructions. Towards the end of this series of columns we will bring you the aggregated results; but don’t worry, your confidentiality is assured – your answers will be known only to yourself.
In the next column we will introduce four key strategies for dealing with the stressors – you will be able to apply these to the personal stressors you identify over the next few weeks