|What is Stress?|
Stress can be a very serious matter.
'Stress' is arguably one of the buzz words of the twenty-first century lifestyle. Typically, it has pretty negative connotations. However, in some situations it is actually considered a positive thing, a motivator. So what exactly does the word 'stress' mean?
Origins of Stress
The word itself comes from a Latin verb, stringere, which means 'to tighten.' It's the same in modern Italian.
The literal definition then, gives us a clue to what the word might be used to mean but only a vague idea of how it is commonly used in the modern day.
Part of the problem is that psychologists and psychiatrists themselves are still not wholly in agreement about how stress should be defined.
Some are of the opinion that it should be defined in purely subjective terms - really it's just about how a person self-reports their experience of how they are feeling.
Others favor an objective definition that relies on factors such as saliva measures, blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate and so on.
Some psychological researchers wish to create a single, catch-all definition defining stress universally as a single phenomenon. Others suggest that stress should be an umbrella term that signifies different things to different people at different times.
All aspects of life can cause stress.
The History of Stress
The precise origins of the term's use are not clear. However we do know that up until the eighteenth century, the word stress was widely used to indicate a state of actual hardship, affliction or adversity. If someone was said to be in a state of stress it meant that they were ill or homeless or out of work and hungry.
The Timeline of Stress
· pre 1800s a condition of poverty or destitution
· 1800s onwards a term in physics to express force applied
· 1900s onwards any challenge to biological homeostasis
· 1946 Han Seyle's first attempt to define stress
· 1964 Link established between stress and heart disease
· 1980 The idea of 'burnout' is accepted
· 1990 Research into post-traumatic stress disorder
· 2000 onwards Stress at work a cause of litigation
In the eighteenth century the term was adopted by the early physicists to describe the exertion of a force upon a physical substance such as metal or wood. Any distortions of the object thus stressed where termed strains, That is the origin of the phrases 'the stresses and strain.' So the stress was the force applied and the strain was the resulting change in form.
In the nineteenth century there was a popular semi-philosophical, semi-scientific notion stating that 'a constant internal state is the essence of free and independent life.' This internal equilibrium was named homeostasis after the Greek, meaning 'same state.' In that context, stress was considered to be any factor or eventuality which led to an upsetting of this internal harmony. The principle of homeostasis is still applied in modern biology.
By the 1950s, with the advent of modern psychology, a broader, more inclusive sense had been given to the word stress, as meaning any non-specific reaction of the body to demands made upon it.
Subsequently, a distinction has been made between 'physical stress' and 'mental stress' although many are at pains to point out the the boundary between these two may not be clear or even real.
The definition of stress is still debated and used in different ways by different people at different times, making a single explanation of what it is a little difficult to pin down. that said, sometime a degree of ambiguity is useful.
Let's take a look at the latest thinking on the subject of stress, its causes, effects and strategies for coping with it at work and in daily life.
Dealing With Stress : What it is and How to Cope
Models and Theories of Stress
If there is still a debate about the meaning of stress it centers around a single question: is stress objective or subjective?
Is stress best defined as a series of measurable stressors outside the individual or as an experience of anxiety in response to a threat or perceived threat (whether real or not)?
After all, two people can respond to the same situation very differently. One may experience the situation as very stressful and another may feel in her element. Is it that one is stressed and the other isn't or is it that both are stressed and one is coping or responding better to the stress than the other?
Demand/Control Theory of Stress
This is arguably the simplest of the several theories that have been put forward as models of stress.
This theory concentrates on the idea of a dynamic tension between the physical and psychological demands placed upon a person in a given situation and their corresponding ability to take control of the circumstances and guide outcomes according to their own freedom to make choices and decisions.
So, according to this model high demand situation combined with low control capabilities equals a stressful situation. Low to medium demand combined with a high level of self-directed control would not be stressful. Even high demand situations might not be experienced as stressful if there is a correspondingly high level of autonomy and control available to the person who must respond.
Three Components Theory of Stress
This theory proposes that stress is best viewed as arising from the relative balance of a constellation of three main factors.
These factors are:
1. The personality, abilities and life story of the individual.
2. Environmental pressures from family, work and location.
3. The strategies employed to respond to pressure.
According to this theory a primary way to resolve stress related problems is through education, through learning new and more effective strategies to cope with the environmental pressures. Either that, or where desirable and possible, removing oneself from the stress causing environment (changing job, leaving a relationship, moving to a different climate etc.)
This theory is the foundation of many therapeutic practices and counselling techniques.
Individual Capacity Theory of Stress
The individual capacity theory of stress divides people up into three distinct personality types. To each of these types it ascribes particular traits which determine that person's experience of stress and anxiety.
The types are:
· The anxious worrier or neurotic personality
· The fatalist personality
· The competitive personality
Let's look at each in turn:
· The person with a neurotic personality can be said to suffer from negative affectivity meaning that their default setting, so to speak, is to view circumstances in a negative light, assume the worst will happen, feel generally anxious about even minor changes, lack self-worth and imagine that others are out to undermine them at every turn. these people tend to blame others, be unproductive and dissatisfied. They are a little like little frightened mice in a state of constant high-anxiety.
· The person with the fatalistic personality tends to perceive circumstances as beyond their personal control - events and outcomes are ordained by fate, gods, social superiors or simply random chance. They tend to feel powerless and often subscribe readily to conspiracy theories and religious practices or fanatically consult 'psychics,' astrologers, tarot readers and such. They are generally ill-equipped at coping positively with stressful situations.
· The competitive personality is highly driven and very motivated by the need not only to achieve well but to achieve more than others. They tend to be impatient and keen to get ahead and occupied with a keen sense of urgency about their ambitions. They tend to work hard to improve their skills and abilities. They respond to stress as a challenge and a motivator but at the same time they can easily over-stretch themselves and burn out.
It may well be that this list of 'personality types' is neither wholly accurate or exhaustive but it may have some use in helping us to recognize our own tendencies and the tendencies of others when experiencing potentially stressful situations.
Work Related Stress
It is perhaps obvious to state that certain kinds of work or jobs are more stressful than others.
Certain factors have been identified as making for a more stressful working situation:
· a heavy burden of responsibility
· the need to make important decisions that effect the lives of others
· work which requires you to be constantly 'on top of the situation' or 'ahead of your game.'
· unpleasant, noisy or dangerous working conditions
· a job involving unstructured tasks where little information is given
· not knowing why you are being asked to do something
Another potential stressor in the workplace is the experience of role ambiguity which can occur with people who work across departments or have several different jobs or are the 'middlemen' between the bosses and the workers. Juggling a variety of different roles can be stressful as it can upset a person's sense of their identity.
Being socially isolated at work, feeling that you don't 'fit in' or that your thoughts, feelings, ideas and opinions don't really count can also be a considerable source of stress.
Coping With Stress
When it comes to coping with stressful situations, be they at home, at work or elsewhere, two broad categories of coping styles have been identified, They are:
· problem-focused coping
· emotion-focused coping
The first of these seeks to change the circumstances or gain control over the factors that are the causes of the stress. It tends to focus on a problem-solving approach based on an assessment of the situation, identifying why the stress is occurring and taking control of those factors to alleviate the stressful situation or dynamic.
The second tends to focus on managing the psycho-emotional consequences of stress rather than attempting to eradicate the causes. This can mean anything from simple denial, through to changing attitudes or beliefs or 'letting off steam' through sporting or other physical activities or 'letting go' through meditation or relaxation techniques.
Another good way of coping with stress is to get things in perspective and talk through the experience with someone else. very often friendship and social networks are the most useful ports of call for dealing with stressful situations.
Feeling stressed and alone can lead to a severe worsening of the consequences of stress both on ohysical health and emotionally.
Stress Management Techniques
The Consequences of Stress
The consequences of prolonged or unmanaged stress can be anything from simple forgetfulness to suicidal depression.
Typical physical signs and symptoms of unmanaged stress are:
· poor self-care and physical appearance
· always feeling tired
· unable to sleep at night, unable to get up in the morning
· frequents colds and infections
· constant aches and pains
· panic attacks
· irritable bowel syndrome
· headaches and dizziness
· weight loss
· over-eating or anorexia
The emotional toll can be high, too, leading to:
· a sense of apathy and boredom, a lack of motivation
· short-temper, snappy and reactive
· tearfulness, crying without provocation
· a constant sense of anxiety
· depression and suicidal fantasies
Stress that is not effectively dealt with can also manifest in behavioral factors such as:
· absenteeism from work, constantly missing deadlines
· accidents due to distraction and thoughtlessness
· smoking, alcohol abuse and drug dependency
· lack of concentration
· periods of excess followed by regret
Clearly the consequences of stress are not to be underestimated.
Luckily, if you are feeling that you cannot cope well with the stress that you are under, there is a lot you can do.
The Advantages of Optimism
A positive attitude can reduce stress.
Optimists are not necessarily always cheerful but they do tend to assume that things will turn out right in the end and believe that there is no point wasting energy on feeling down when things go wrong. they tend to think that the energy is better spent in starting to find solutions to the problems they face.
Optimism can be a great help in times of stress so long as it is realistic (there is no point in being so overly optimistic that you are blind to the fact that there is a problem needs solving!) It can keep you focus and your energy high to engage in a positive, problem-solving approach and enable you to keep working at it until the stressful situation is turned around.
Positive Stress: Facing a Challenge
Some people actively seek stressful situations (think of world class athletes or people who scale mountains or other extremes of human endeavour) but they tend to regard these activities as challenges rather than threats.
Such people will tend to subscribe to the philosophy 'what does not kill us makes us stronger.' They enjoy stress, find it motivating and a source of purpose in life.
they tend to perceive obstacles as learning opportunities and change as a chance to grow and develop.
Dealing With Stress
There are several strategies that you can use to make a start on de-stressing yourself.
First and foremost is to not be afraid to accept that you are not coping. That is always the first step towards actually coping!
Then seek to identify the stressors in your life, the causes of your anxiety. This can be made easier by talking to a close friend, family member or a professional counsellor.
Learn and practice a good relaxation technique. You might like to join a meditation class or take up Yoga or Tai Chi. That way you will also have social contact.
Above all, if you are not coping with the stress factors in your life - don't go it alone. Seek help.
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