Stress is a word we have heard a lot, and we talk about the fact we all feel a lot of it. We also talk about decreasing it. But what is stress exactly, and is it all bad? To answer these questions, I think it is best to explain what stress is and the role it plays in our lives.
What is stress?
Researchers define stress as “any situation which tends to disturb the equilibrium between a living organism and its environment.” In other words, it is simply the body’s response to changes in our environment. With that in mind there are many areas in which we can become stressed such as; work, school, spiritual life, relationships, family, etc. If we aren’t careful, this stress can have serious effects on our body, mind and life.
To understand stress, we should look at the three different kinds of negative stress.
The three kinds of stress
The American Psychological Association (APA), defines the 3 different types of negative stress as; acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.
1. Acute Stress - this is the most common form of stress and is said to typically present as the briefest form. This type of stress is the kind that creates those negative thoughts that make you feel bad. It is often the kind of stress that comes after you get into a fight with your mother-in-law or after you just posted a negative comment on social media that didn’t go over well. Usually this form of stress subsides once the situation is reduced over time.
Symptoms of acute stress include heart racing, back and neck pain and tension, gastrointestinal issues (like gas, diarrhea, and heart burn, yuk!) as well as irritability, anxiety and sadness and ruminating thoughts (i.e. playing the events over and over again in your mind.) But these seem to go away once the stress subsides.
2. Episodic Acute Stress - we all have that friend who seems to go from one mini-crisis to the next. You know the one. It’s when a person lives in a state of low level tension all the time but doesn’t really know how to change it and maybe even causes some of it. It’s the person who never says “no” to anything and then gets overbooked. The person who creates drama. The one who can’t say “no” to those really sad animal commercials on TV and comes home with a new kitten even though his landlord has a “no animal policy” and he’s already a month late on their rent. Yeah that one! If you or someone you know struggles with episodic acute stress, you, or they, probably need intervention. Working with a therapist to help understand why they need help saying “no” or need to create stress and drama and to help develop coping skills will go a long way to reducing this type of stress.
Symptoms of episodic acute stress include emotional distress, irritability, difficulty regulating mood, problems with focus, memory and decision making, muscle tension in back, neck, jaw etc. headaches, digestive problems (IBS is common), panic attacks and even high blood pressure, lowered immune systems, interpersonal relationship difficulties, and sleep problems.
3. Chronic Stress - This is the most problematic form of stress. This is the type of stress that creates a feeling of hopelessness. It is stress in which a person frequently feels victimized and has a loss of control that goes on unabated for a number of years. Things like joblessness, poverty, domestic violence, and substance abuse can all create chronic stress. Left untreated, this form of stress can cause significant health problems.
Symptoms of chronic stress are very similar to those already mentioned above, however, people with chronic stress also may have physical side effects and the wear and tear of chronic stress can reduce a person’s ability to cope with daily life. The World Health Organization report that folks with chronic stress are at risk for suicide, family violence, poverty, joblessness, ethnic violence, community violence, dysfunctional family life, substance abuse, and more. A person who is trying to cope with chronic stress needs to seek professional help right away. The problem is that people who live with chronic stress sometimes become so used to it they don’t know they don’t have to live that way. It becomes “normal.”
Is all stress bad?
Here is the good news, all stress isn’t bad! In fact, some stress is actually good for us. And there is even a term for good stress, “eustress.” You see in daily life we often use that term stress to refer to something negative but actually stress can have some pretty positive effects. Because what we really mean by negative stress is “distress.”
Let’s use this example: Pretend you were just offered the job of your dreams! It is a career of a life time and you will be moving to a new state. A place you have always wanted to live. The company is giving you a huge signing bonus, paying for the move, and convering the cost of first and last month’s rent to get you into a wonderful condo by the beach! You get a driver to and from work each day, there is paid vacation, wonderful health care, a retirement package, stock options, taco Tuesdays, casual Fridays, and you get to work from home two days a week! Oh, and let’s not forget the office is pet-friendly and they have onsite daycare, paid for by the company! Like, where’s the stress? Well, you have to move, pack, leave friends and possibly family, change your children’s school, end your relationships with your old employer and co-workers. So, while this is good stress, it is still stress. How good stress or eustress is different however is this.
Helps focuses energy
We perceive it as within our coping abilities to handle
If stress is everywhere, what do we do?
In her TED talk, “How To Make Stress Your Friend,” Kelly McGonigal says just talking about your stressors can help. Talking releases a hormone called “oxytocin.” This is super important because often when we are stressed, we tend to shut down and become distant from others. But when we reach out to others, oxytocin is released. Oxytocin is sometimes called the cuddle hormone. This is because it is kind of magical. It plays a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, and the bonding that takes place after childbirth. It makes us want to connect with others and that reduces stress.
Even though stress is part of life, some is good, some is bad, and sometimes stress can be ugly. But we can all learn to manage stress by improving the way we respond to it and avoiding or changing some of the situations that create negative stress in our lives.