What is Stress?

Nowadays our lives are rarely stress free – there is always something that we need to take care of and stress is accepted as a normal part our existence. And that is fine: as long as it is within certain limits, it can enhance performance. The difficulty arises when we are permanently in emergency mode then the mind and body start to pay the price.

The early signs of too much stress can be problems with sleep, eating disorders or digestion. If this happens then you really need to take notice of what your body is telling you before more serious side effects become apparent.

Stress as a response

Stress is the body’s response to any event or pressure that is perceived as a threat or danger. It is perfectly normal and actually indispensable. It can motivate you to achieve beyond your normal capacity and overcome what you might have previously considered to be insurmountable obstacles.

The body’s stress response is to release special hormones including adrenaline and cortisol into the circulatory system which have the effect of rousing the body to a higher state ready to face the challenge. The heart rate increases, muscles tense which raises blood pressure, rate of breathing increases and all the senses are heightened. Thus your strength and stamina are increased, your reaction time is speeded up, your attention is at full alert – ready for fight or fleeing.

How the response is activated

This response to emergencies can be activated by physical or psychological threats, so the body may react in exactly the same way to the need for an emergency stop in the car or the stress of an important presentation at work. However if you are in a pressurised situation with multiple responsibilities your emergency stress response may be operating much of the time and the more it operates the easier it is to initiate and harder to close down.

The important point is that beyond a certain level, the body’s exposure to the stress reaction is actually harmful and can result in physical and psychological damage. Long term exposure to stress can result in raised blood pressure, suppression of the immune system, increased risk of stroke or heart attack, infertility problems and premature ageing. In addition the change in neural patterns can lead to anxiety and depression.

Health problems associated with stress

Common health problems include:

  • Pain
  • Heart disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression
  • Obesity
  • Auto-immune diseases

Causes of stress

The causes of stress are many and various – we are all affected differently. The most common are probably work or relationship problems but anything that is outside our normal experience will cause stress – even positive events such as getting married or buying a house.

The most common external causes are:

  • Major life changes
  • Work
  • Relationship problems
  • Financial problems
  • Being over busy
  • Family

The most common internal causes are:

  • Uncertainty
  • Pessimism
  • Negative self talk
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Perfectionism
  • Lack of assertiveness