What is Stress?By Elaine Pomfrey
Stress. We’ve all experienced it, but what is it? There are as many definitions as there are people. One person may say stress is when you have a lot to do, not much time to do it and then a couple of emergencies. Another person might say it’s being unemployed, while a third might say it’s his job.
Hans Selye coined the word, “stress,” back in 1936. He defined it as the “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” After several experiments on animals, he concluded that they responded to persistent stress over time with the same illnesses as human beings – hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, ulcers etc. This finding was revolutionary because scientists previously believed that illnesses were caused by different pathogens. Stress, as a concept, caught on.
Is stress always bad? No. Selye created the word, “eustress,” to define stress that is healthy or gives you a sense of fulfillment, like getting a promotion or winning a marathon. But many people upon reading these examples of eustress would label them stress. And thus the difficulty with a catchall definition. Even Selye changed his definition of stress later in his life to “the rate of wear and tear on the body.”
What scientists can agree upon, however, is the effect of stress on the body. When something stressful happens, for example, you perceive a car heading for yours, the flight or fight response, kicks in. Powerful neurotransmitters, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and hormones, like cortisol, are secreted. The heart starts beating faster. You begin to sweat. Your awareness is heightened. Your body is ready to protect you.
In everyday situations like at the office, many people automatically respond to stress with this flight or fight reaction. However, because they can’t run away and brawling is prohibited, it becomes more of a “rough or stuff” reaction. They feel rough and act irritated or they “stuff” their emotions, repressing them to come out later in other ways.
The problem with stress is that it accumulates. At first, you may experience mild forms of stress such as a headache, nervous stomach, or the occasional sleepless night. These symptoms are the body’s way of telling you to reduce stress. If you do not heed the message, then stress builds in the physiology. It can cause more serious problems such as hypertension, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Americans these days experience more stress than ever. 42% of Americans polled this year by the American Psychological Association reported that their stress has increased in the past year.
How do you reduce stress? The obvious answer is to avoid the stressor, that which is causing stress. Sometimes this is enough. You learn to say no to extra projects at work. You avoid certain people who irritate you. However these steps may remove the external factor, but what about the internal factors such as your overall health, how rested your body is, your state of well-being?
To improve your approach to dealing with stress, doctors recommend many stress management techniques. Meditation is one of the most useful. When the body rests, it naturally dissolves stress and fatigue. However, many people can’t depend on sleep to make them feel rested the next day. In fact, about 10% of Americans have trouble sleeping according the National Institutes of Health.
In the case of Transcendental Meditation, the deep rest that it provides during the practice reduces activation of the sympathetic nervous system—which, in turn, dilates the blood vessels and reduces stress hormones, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. This very deep rest dissolves deep rooted stress and fatigue. As a result, it has been found that Transcendental Meditation reduces day to day stress, anxiety and depression.
For additional resources on stress, refer to the following sites:
- Understanding Stress – Find out the causes, signs, and symptoms of stress.
- What is Stress? – A detailed explanation of stress, including tips on how to manage it.
- Stress and Eustress – Learn about good and bad stress
- Facts about Stress – A factsheet that provides a comprehensive overview of stress.
- The Causes of Stress – An article that contains basic information about the causes and effects of stress.
- Stress and Your Health – Some questions and answers for women
- Stress Symptoms – How stress affects the body and behavior
- Stress at Work – All about job stress
Scientific Research on the Effects of Stress