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Understanding Stress

During these chaotic times, we thought it would be a good opportunity to explore the topic of “stress” – a word so easily thrown about, but do we actually understand it and more importantly, how are we equipped to manage it?

Let’s unpack a bit of the history…

The word “stress” itself was first recognised in the 14th century and began as a variant of the term “distress”. The medieval term literally meant physical hardship, pain, torture and starvation. Hans Selye, MD, PhD (1907 – 1982) acknowledged as the Father of stress” was the first to give a scientific explanation of biological “stress”. He took the term “stress” from physics to describe an organism’s physiological response to perceived stressful events in the environment. In 1963, he defined stress as the “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”.

This definition was expanded in 1979 to include that “stress is a ‘perception’, it is the demands that are imposed upon us because there are too many alternatives.”

Today, most health researchers agree that stress is critical to human health and ageing.  Stress is tightly linked to psychological wellbeing, with stressful events acting as a precursor to many major psychiatric conditions. Sadly, the cost of disease and death associated with mental health conditions exceed that of any other diseases.

Defining and measuring stress is complex in that what is stressful for one person, may not be stressful for others. It is also experienced on multiple levels – socially, psychologically and psychologically, making it that much more difficult to measure.

Stress can be felt when an individual perceives a real or imagined challenge or threat to their wellbeing. People often use the word stress interchangeably with anxiety, feeling anxious, fearful, nervous, overwhelmed panicked or burnt out.

It is important to understand that stress can be seen positively or negatively. Positive stressors are short-lived and your body’s way of helping you get through what could be a tough situation. Sometimes however, negative feelings can be intense, long lasting and turn into a negative impact.

While what stresses each one of us is vastly different, the recipe and ingredients for stress is universal. For a situation to be stressful, it must contain one or more of the following elements:

(Source: Centre for Studies on Human Stress)

Understanding how we respond:
As Hans Selye aptly proclaimed –

“it is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”

The stress response is your body’s way of dealing with a demanding situation. It causes hormonal, respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous system changes.  These are universal responses that we all experience – your heart beats faster, you start to perspire, or you have a burst of energy. It’s important to note that this type of stress helped our ancestors survive in nature.

In Selye’s exploration on stress, he developed a model known as “General Adaption Syndrome” which he explains as the body’s way of adapting to a perceived threat to better equip it to survive.


Selye states that a stressful event leads to a three-stage bodily response:

  1. ALARM STAGE – characterized by an acute increase in anxiety or fear if the stressor is a threat – where your body reacts with a fight or flight response. The sympathetic nervous system is activated, and the body is mobilized to meet the threat.
    Signs include increased heart rate; increased blood pressure and increased blood sugar levels.
  1. RESISTANCE STAGE – if the stress continues, we enter the resistance stage where our defence mechanisms start to dominate and the body begins to store up excess energy (Whetten, 2011) The body resists and compensates as the parasympathetic nervous system attempts to return many physical functions back to normal.
    Signs include irritability, frustration and poor concentration.
  2. EXHAUSTION STAGE – When stress is so pronounced or prolonged as to overwhelm defenses or so enduring to outlast available energy, exhaustion may result. The body is then susceptible to disease or even death, as a result of a weakened immune system from continuous exposure to the physical effects.
    Signs include fatigue, depression, burn-out and anxiety.

With this in mind, it is clear why stress management is complicated, often requiring various levels of treatment intervention. A person who feels they do not have enough resources to cope will more likely have a stronger reaction that triggers significant physical and mental health problems,

It is paramount to remember that the mind and body are connected – meaning that psychological factors affect how a person feels physically or the longevity of it.

Being aware of how you react to stressors and seeking professional help can greatly reduce the negative feelings and effects of stress. If you continue to feel stress or anxiety, it is important to identify the source and manage them appropriately.  This could mean something as simple as going for a run or as complex as consulting with a clinical psychologist to unpack situations, thoughts and behaviours.

To this end, we must acknowledge the words of Shawn Achor…

“stress is an inevitable part of work and life, but the effect of stress upon is far from inevitable.”

The powerful realisation is that we have the ability to choose.

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