We’ve all thrown around this word a number of times. The phrases “I’m stressed!”, “it’s so stressful!”, “I’m under a lot of stress” has probably been used for any of the following scenarios: Your boss asks you to meet multiple deadlines, you have a big presentation coming up, you’re about to go on a job interview, you’re waiting for medical results, your children are doing badly in school, you strive to maintain a balance between work and home life or you’re having a rough patch in your relationship. Although your verbal reaction might not be as strong, stress can also happen on seemingly joyful occasions such as the birth of a new baby, a job promotion, an upcoming wedding. How exactly do we define stress with it having such a myriad application in our lives? Tricky isn’t it?
For a long time there was no clear definition of stress, and the first person to propose and introduce the term stress isn’t exactly sure on how to define it either. Hans Selye originally defines stress as "the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change" after he observed animals who were put under duress experienced physiological conditions after a prolonged exposure, such as stomach ulcers, lymphoid tissues shrinkage and adrenal gland enlargement. These conditions can then lead to more serious problems like heart attacks, arthritis, stroke and kidney disease. Selye hypothesized that these effects also applied to humans when they are put under stress. This became a popular notion until the term became so loosely used that it, as a 1951 British medical journal put it “Stress in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself." Later on in Selye’s career, when asked to define stress, he simply stated: "Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows."
Today, stress is generally understood as the body’s reaction to any form of demand wherein which he feels there is very little or no control at all. This is true for both good and bad instances such as the examples mentioned above. The stress response is actually very useful in terms of emergency situations, releasing the chemical cortisol which gives a person quick bursts of energy, heightened memory, increased immunity, higher pain threshold, and maintaining homeostasis in the blood. However, it’s not good to always be activating this stress response because prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol can be degenerative. Our lives these days can be so full of stress, but not the kind such as our ancestors had it. We don’t need to run away from dangerous animals, we don’t need to hunt for food, nor are we under the mercy of the elements. Our stresses these days are usually emotional in nature and it’s harder to find an outlet for that. This is why it is important to always keep the emotional stress levels in check.
There are generally four kinds of stress that a person experiences, namely:
- Survival stress—such as when you are attacked by a dog or are confronted by a snake in your hike, your body goes into a “fight or flight” mode which gives you lightning fast assessment of the situation enabling you to choose between fighting the threat or fleeing from it. Your senses are heightened and the adrenaline rush in your body gives you an almost superhuman strength.
- Internal stress—internal stress is when you worry about things that goes on in your life, whether it’s relationships, finances, your job or your health. This tug of war inside your brain is stress and causes stress.
- Environmental stress—your body responds to what happens within your environment and some of these could be stressful to you. This could be pollution, very loud noise from the neighbors, or even the weather.
- Fatigue and being overworked—this is physical stress and this is brought about by the toll of work on the body. Examples of this are people who hardly get any sleep because of a newborn, having body pains because of hard physical labor or from being crouched in front of the computer, etc.