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So What is Stress Anyway?

Woman Walking on Treadmill --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

We hear a lot about stress and how to avoid it.

But wait! What if we could eliminate it? Would that be a good thing?

NO! Because we can’t live without stress.

“Stress is the body’s nonspecific response to the demands placed upon it”, says Hans Selye, MD, professor, and research scientist who spent a lifetime researching and explaining the body’s physiological response to stress. (See his book, “Stress Without Distress”)

Our body is constantly adapting to changes. If we couldn’t adapt, we would be unable to go to work, make plans and keep ourselves safe. It is stress that allows us to respond to whatever is happening. It enables us to adapt to any new situation, whether it is cheering at a football game or responding to a threat. It is how we are able to respond to life: mentally, emotionally, socially and physically.

We can’t eliminate stress, nor do we want to. It is normal and natural.

Okay – so what does all that mean?

Here is another way to look at it. We are born with a certain amount of “adaptive” ability. Like a savings account, we use our “ability to adapt” throughout our life. When we have used up our storehouse of “adaptive ability” we don’t get any more. Aging and death will soon follow.

Although we do not have control over the amount of adaptive ability we are born with, we do have considerable control over how we use it.

When we set goals, manage our time, go to work, enjoy the kids, have good friends over for dinner or simply cheer at a Sea Hawks game, we are maximizing good stress. It lets us solve problems, build things and create meaning. It allows us to laugh and cry and run a marathon and live productive and happy lives.

So if stress is so good, why should I be concerned?

Like any system, when it gets overloaded, things begin to go wrong. When there are more and more demands and expectations to work harder, faster, increase productivity but still maintain excellence, we gradually become exhausted, physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. When we continue to do this day in and day out without restful breaks that help restore our system, it has a negative effect on our body. So, considering how we manage our time is a crucial first step to maximizing our stress and energy levels.

Time pressure is not the only source of unwanted stress

But time pressure isn’t the only thing that creates overload. Our brain is constantly receiving messages from many different sources: touch, smell, sight, and sound as well as internally from our brain itself. When the brain receives these messages and interprets them, it sends chemical messengers to other parts of the brain which in turn sends messages to the body to prepare it for some kind of action.

When the messages received are considered a threat or danger of some kind, our Fight/Flight Response is activated so that we can fight, flee or freeze in order to survive. Almost every part of the body and brain is affected. When the danger is over, then our body returns to a restful, restorative state. It is a healthy and balanced system.

But when the threat or danger is not a real physical threat, but a paper tiger – a perception of danger – the system gets out of whack and we remain in an “activated” state  for longer periods of time not allowing our body to return to a restorative state. That is when we begin to experience health problems. Stress is no longer allowing us to adapt to situations so we can enjoy life – it is burning it up.

On Friday we will look at some of the ways we can become de-stressed.

Marlene Anderson




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