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Redefine stress - release its hold on you

Added 30 July 2010
By Janelle Brennan – ADAVIC Member—March 2010

How many times have you heard people around you say that they are ‘stressed’? How many times have you complained that you felt ‘stressed’? Probably a lot! The word stress is a major part of the modern vernacular, and in technical terms, it’s used to describe either a psychological or physiological state of arousal. It is used by the public, the media, health professionals, and medical professionals alike. But have you ever really stopped and thought about what you actually mean when you say you feel stressed? Do you feel like you are under pressure? Do you feel anxious? Worried? Excited? Motivated? These words alone are all perfectly acceptable descriptions of how we might feel when we say we are stressed; so how can this one little word mean so many different things?

After doing some fairly in depth research on the modern uses of the word stress, I have come to believe that a major part of learning how to deal with stress is being able to define it specifically. In order to do this, I’d like you to have a very brief look at where the word came from and what it has ultimately come to mean for us today. This may also help you to put the concept of stress in perspective. In early research, stress was used as a term to describe the immediate physiological response of the body to a potentially threatening situation. Have you ever heard of the fight or flight response? This is a theory that when we are faced with a threat (for an animal in the wild, this would be a predator), we enter a period of heightened arousal (stress) to prime the body to either attack the threatening stimuli if we believe we can overcome it (fight), or to escape to safety if we determine the threat is too difficult to overcome (flight). In this theory, stress refers only to the physiological state of the body in that very moment.

Now, most of you will probably agree that while this theory makes some sense, it certainly isn’t the whole picture. After all, in our day to day lives we might constantly feel as though we are under stress at work and at home, with so many things to think about and so much pressure to perform. This is a form of psychological stress, where our thoughts or the anticipation of an event causes heightened arousal (the stress response).

Psychological stress can pose a major threat to our health and well-being, as it takes a huge toll on our physical, mental, and emotional health. In the fight or flight theory for example, think about what happens specifically inside our bodies when we experience heightened arousal. The body quickly prepares for demanding muscular action in order to attack or escape, by releasing adrenaline, accelerating heart and lung action leading to shallow breathing, slowing or stopping digestion, blood vessels will constrict, pupils expand, the bladder and colon relax for evacuation, and you might also experience tunnel vision, slight loss of hearing, and shaking. All of these reactions are the body’s scientifically programmed way of conserving all energy and redirecting it towards the muscles. It’s pretty clever when you think about it, but our bodies are most definitely not built to be in a constant state of arousal. Can you imagine your body maintaining this state of awareness and conservation for a long period of time? That is what we are putting our bodies through when we are constantly psychologically stressed. If you are experiencing physical symptoms such as shallow breathing, feeling flushed or perspiring, heart pounding, and a constant need to be going to the toilet, then your body is essentially in a state of exhaustion, as it is using all of its resources to deal with a potential threat. You really need to think about learning how to control your stress. So how can you actually do this?

1.Redefine it to suit yourself

Research into stress and various stress theories has exploded in the last century, but surprisingly, there is still no agreed upon, accepted, definition of stress. Some researchers say it is an ‘umbrella term’ that encompass both serious, life-changing incidents as well as daily hassles, while others argue that stress is essentially a useless, unspecific label for a variety of feelings, emotions, and subsequent reactions.
So how can you learn to cope with something when you’re not even really sure what it encompasses? Well, why not come up with your own definition? What does stress mean to you? In my research, I asked specific questions in order to find out what psychological stress means. You may like to ask yourself the following questions to better understand your perspective on stress:

  • What are the three feelings you associate the most with feeling stressed?
  • What are the three feelings you associate the least with feeling stressed? (This should encompass feelings you would prefer to feel, such as calm, excited or motivated)
  • Is stress an internal event (subjective; different things cause stress in different people), an external event (objective; the same things would cause stress in anyone), or a combination of both? Explain your answer to help define the main source of your stress.
  • What are the key agents in your life that provoke a stress response?

My research resulted in the following definition of stress: ‘An unpleasant reaction to a thought or situation that occurs when one evaluates their circumstances as being difficult to cope with’. Yours may be much simpler, such as: “A feeling of anxiousness when things feel out of my control”.  

2. Identify the threat and plot your course of action

Now that you have defined stress in your own terms, you should know exactly what you’re dealing with. The next step is to identify the main source of your experience of stress. Is it your workplace, financial situation, lack of time? Be very specific. Usually, feeling stressed can be contributed to feeling as though you cannot control the situation, or you are ill equipped to rise to its demands. If this sounds familiar, the answer should be obvious! You need to gain control in a way that is possible; you need to better equip yourself to cope. It certainly sounds easier than it is, but it is possible.

Let’s adapt the fight or flight response to psychological stress, assuming your main source of stress is your finances. In this particular example, we may not have any choice but to ‘fight’, which would be to face up to the demands. The first and most important thing to keep in mind is what you can control, and what you cannot. There will always be things in life that we have no control over, and it is a waste of energy (even though it is a very valid concern) to dwell on these things that cause us to feel stressed. It will become a vicious cycle eventually leading to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Instead, we need to focus on the things we can control. So, you might sit down and create a budget, address your credit card debt by setting up a meeting with a financial advisor, or simply start a piggy bank where you empty your coins every night and bank them every six months. There will always be something, no matter how small, that you can contribute to a situation to slightly alleviate the feeling that you have no control. Your fear or complacency towards a difficult situation can only exacerbate your feeling stressed.

3. Increase your vocabulary

How about trying to limit or stop using the word stress? Before my research project began, I used to call myself a ‘stress head’. I threw around the word like it was going out of fashion, until someone asked me to define stress. I started using words like anxiety, worry, tension, fear, before I realised: these are all things in their own right, how can they be something else? If a word means everything, it means nothing.

So next time you hear yourself saying ‘stressed’ challenge yourself to see what it is you are really feeling, and be specific. It might be a few different things. For me it was like this:

I feel like I am under a lot of pressure to do well in my thesis. I feel anxious that I won’t meet my deadlines, and scared that I will fail. I’m really worried about the fact that I am not getting many hours at work, how will I save for my car registration?
The above words and feelings all have meanings in their own right, so why do we feel the need to attribute everything to a non-specific term like ‘stress’? One explanation could be that our society enables people to use non-descriptive words to cover up words that have negative or stigmatised connotations, such as anxiety. To some, saying ‘I am anxious,’ or ‘I am under    pressure,’ can be seen as either too confronting, or as an admission of weakness: ‘I cannot cope with life’.

If you feel this way, you could start by trying not to use the word stress with yourself first, and then try with people close to you. As a society, we are not doing ourselves or those around us any favours by pretending we can cope with anything that comes our way.

4.  Learn to be a little bit laid back

Last but certainly not least, learn to accept stress - however you may define it or whatever you may call it - as a part of  everyday life, rather than as a pathological, toxic agent to be avoided at all costs. All humans and other animals face a variety of stressful situations, and our ability to determine what we can or cannot control is what will lead to a happy and healthy body and mind.

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