Understanding Stress

Article posted by: Gienie Assink, Springfield Oregon


“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it” –Jane Wagner


Stressed out! Burned out! Overwhelmed! Over the edge! Losing it! Yes, 43 percent of us suffer health effects from stress.  And did you know that an estimated 70-90 percent of all visits to physicians’ offices are stress-related?  Not only is stress considered a work hazard, but it is also linked to the six leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

Stress, however, doesn’t have to be negative.  Some forms of stress can activate and energize us and make us more productive.  Yet at other times, stress can cause a state of fatigue, irritability and depression.  Both positive and negative stress must be managed in order to prevent physical, emotional and financial damage.


Stress happens.  If you are among the living, it can’t be avoided.  So what exactly is stress? 


Sometimes stress is an event or the way we perceive things.  Other times stress is a response to demanding situations.  Stress can be described as the way our bodies and minds react to change and problems.


When stress is present, our physical bodies react.  The brain releases chemicals and hormones, heart rate and blood pressure increase, the immune system is activated, the throat can become dry and tense, the skin becomes cool, clammy or sweaty, and the digestive system shuts down.


The challenge, then, is to face stress without allowing it to overwhelm and seriously impair our thoughts and bodies.


Do you remember sitting at the top of the roller coaster waiting to dive down a bazillion feet?  The feeling of terror was mixed with excitement.  Your adrenaline was flowing; you took a deep breath and closed your eyes, and down you plunged.  After you put your heart back in your chest, you thought, “Hey that was great”! And back you went for more.  (OK, some of us had to throw up a few times first!)


Or remember when you prepared for your first instrumental recital without the music?  I do.  I was sure I would forget the notes.  Of course, the worry and dread that overtook me didn’t exactly help my memory.  When it was my turn to play the violin solo I worked so hard to prepare, my teacher mispronounced my name, which really boosted my confidence. “Just sit down, back straight, hands in playing position, and play,” I coached myself as my sweaty fingers kept slipping off the finger board.  “You can do this.”  Amazingly, I did.  (Well, if we don’t count the time I totally forgot the piece, burst into tears, and ran out of the room.)


Who wouldn’t count the famous “I do” for a lifetimes as stress?  For men, this usually tops their “Most Anxious Moments” list. For us women, the wedding preparations may cause us to lose perspective by concentrating on all the details of one day rather than on building a strong foundation, for a marriage which will last a lifetime. 


Then we move on to another developmental milestone—the birth of a baby.  Yes, it feels as if the baby will never come out and you will be the only woman on earth to never complete the task. 


In all of those examples, stress pushed us harder (no birth pun intended!), roused us to action, and generally moved us forward.  Positive stress comes and goes, like the perfect houseguest.  It makes our lives exciting, fun and challenging.  It momentarily taxes our bodies and mental abilities, but we quickly recover and move forward.


When too much stress is experienced, or stress continues over a long period of time, the positive benefits can turn negative. We may find ourselves stuck in physical exhaustion and emotional despair.  We may perceive the situation hopeless with no end in sight.


Negative stress can harm.  It is usually easy to identify—death, divorce, imprisonment, poverty, war, disease and so on.  You can probably think of several negative stress events or responses to events you’ve experienced.  And perhaps your thinking has led you to respond negatively to stress.


The important thing to remember is that stress can be both positive and negative.  Change is often the initiator of any stress.  Other times, stress is caused by the daily hassles of living our lives.


Perhaps you are overscheduled, always in a hurry and never have time to do the things you need to do.  If so, it’s time to slow down and reevaluate the way you may be approaching things.


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