Stress is a term that is easily and frequently used by everyone on daily basis. It is like a popular catchphrase that people throw around to describe many aspects of their lives and the other person just immediately gets it. Stress is a result of our physical, biochemical, emotional and cognitive responses to pressures and changes that we experience or observe.
The term stress raises many negative associations, emotions and feelings. Feeling stress is often synonymous with feeling overwhelmed, really worried, exhausted, feeling spread too thin or depleted. Stress is a very subjective phenomenon and it is not easily defined. Nowadays the most commonly used definition of stress is the definition which Lazarus(1966) gave: ’ stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources that the individual is able to mobilize.” If we think that we don’t have much demands on us and we evaluate the situation and all its influential components as manageable and non-taxing then we will not experiences allot of stress. Evaluating the demands, pressures or changes as too high, too difficult, unachievable and beyond our abilities, capacities and available resources will result in experiencing stress. The bigger the gap perceived the more stressed one will feel. The level of stress experienced can differ per individual and per appraisal of each situation. While one individual may feel highly stressed, another may experience the same situation as positively challenging, motivating and exciting.
The changes and pressures are also known as stressors. Stressors can originate from external components (e.g.major life changes, illness, work, family or even minor daily hassles such as a long traffic jam). Stressors can be internal or self generated (e.g. fears ,demands we place on ourselves/perfectionisms, chronic and excessive worry, pessimism, negative self-talk, personality characteristics) and interaction of these stressors. Habitual behaviours can also cause stress. The tendency to excessively please others, over scheduling, poor time management and procrastination are just a few examples of behaviours that can impact and add stress. These behaviours make stress a prominent and consistent presence in our lives. Stressors tend to increase the risk of extreme stress, emotional distress and over-exhaustion when they become constant, highly disruptive and/ or are being perceived as unmanageable or uncontrollable.
Certain aspects of the stressors contribute and influence people’s perceptions of them as being stressful. The most obvious is duration. Short term stressors (e.g. dead line at work) would lead to less stress than a long term stressor (e.g. chronic illness). The total quantity of stressors co-occurring in one’s life also influences the level of stress perceived. An isolated event or many concurrent stressors will have different impact on the stress levels felt. Sometimes an additional small minor stressor can feel like the very last straw when one is already coping with several others stressors. The level of magnitude, strength and importance of the stressor in one’s life is also influential on the intensity of stress felt. Another important component is the coping skills, resources and capacities, which we posses and how much we actually evaluate them as being helpful and effective in coping successfully with the stressor. If for example, we have experienced a certain situation before or we have applied certain solutions and/ or have already developed certain capacities, which have helped us to cope successfully in the past than we will definitely experience less stress than a person who is facing the same stressor for the first time and /or one who does not know how to cope or someone who does not believe in own personal abilities and the availability of resources to cope with the situation and to neutralize the threat.
We live in a dynamic and changing world and stress is a part of that. However, stress does not necessarily means that it is only negative. A certain amount of stress can add excitement and anticipation to our lives. An optimum amount of stress increases alertness, motivation and energy. As such it can improve performance, problem-solving abilities and also increase accomplishments and productivity. It can lead us to challenge ourselves, go beyond our limits, chase our ambitions, grow as individuals and thrive. The figure below illustrates it well. As the stress level increases, performance improves but that works up to a certain point. Beyond that point, the higher the stress levels get, the further the performance levels decrease and more negative implications appear. At its highest point of stress the psychological and physical health is at total exhaustion and break down. That peak point varies in each of us. Knowing ourselves and the way we respond, the symptoms which we often have when feeling too overwhelmed, can help find that balance in our lives (i.e. that optimum point) and manage the stress levels before they become too distressful and detrimental to us.
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Lazarus, R. S. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill
Lovallo, W. R. (2004). Stress and health: Biological and psychological interactions. Thouasand Oaks;Sage publications.
Aldwin , C.M. (2007).Stress, Coping, and Development: An Integrative Perspective.NY :Guilford Press