What IS "Stress" Anyway?

First or all, you must understand that life does not exist without stress.

In fact, stress is a normal part of our existence, and there is "good" stress, just as there is "bad" stress. However, one important thing to remember is that stress, whether good or bad can have negative effects on health and happiness.

The good news is that there are ways to cope, ways to live, and ways to manage stress which can get rid of, or, at least ease, most of the problems normally associated with the word.

Despite the opening statements, however, to most people, the word "stress" usually brings to mind something unpleasant. But, many psychologists remind us that stress is something that can have positive effects on, and in, our lives.

Why the confusion about stress and its effects on us?

The reasons lie mostly in how each individual evaluates, and responds to, his or her own particular mental and physical condition and situation.

Some examples may help to make the point clear.

Imagine two people. One is a champion swimmer in the Olympics, the other a college senior about to take a final math test. The swimmer has been training most of his or her life for the contest, the senior has hardly cracked a book all semester.

Despite the differences between taking an exam and competing in the Olympics, from a purely physiological point of view both are going to be experiencing similar effects in their bodies - rapid heartbeat and breathing, higher metabolism, active sweat glands and so forth.

Psychologically, there are also going to be similarities as well. For example, both may experience a higher level of concentration, and focus on the present and have thoughts about the next few minutes, vivid images and a heightened sensitivity to feelings.

Obviously, there are key differences as well, especially psychologically. The swimmer is probably exhilarated, ready for the challenge, and eager to show his or her prowess and win the contest.

The student, on the other hand, feels doubt and fear.

In both cases it's reasonable to say that the two young people are "under stress". You could also say they are "feeling stressed" or "stressful".

But, the differences are important.

The swimmer evaluates his or her situation as presenting a challenge he or she wants to take on and believes himself or herself ready to tackle. The senior knows he is inadequately prepared and projects the consequences of his likely failure, a lowered grade and maybe the need to retake the class.

...Not to mention what his parents will say when they find out!

In both of these hypothetical cases concerning "stress", the people are uncertain about the outcome, but each evaluates the odds of success differently. Each might also judge the outcome of failure differently.

The swimmer, for example, may wind up with only a Silver medal. That might be disappointing but, in the Olympics, the number two spot can still lead to lucrative endorsements and a good future...even if the thrill of having had the experience is not enough.

The senior, on the other hand, may see his chances for getting into a good graduate school diminishing. He may have to retake the class before he can even graduate. He could also begin to see himself as a failure because of this event and even envisage this as the end of his college career.

Of course, these examples are very oversimplified. But the pattern is roughly right. Whether you feel stress or elation can often turn on how you evaluate external circumstances and your own inner state.

So there are actually two meanings of the word "stress" that tend to get mixed up together making it harder to understand the question, "What is stress?".

One meaning of stress, refers simply to the heightened awareness and the physiological symptoms described above. You could experience "good" or normal stress at the prospect of a visit from a relative, the birth of a baby, or the start of a new, yet long-desired and sought after, job.

The other concept is essentially equivalent to the combination of worry, and, those other symptoms of stress we have mentioned.

The symptoms of stress can have negative health consequences, since they can actually be physically harmful. But, since humans are both mind and body, and, the two aspects affect one another, the psychological part is possibly just as important.

Despite the differences, however, even things which most might consider "good" stress can, through their normal physiological and psychological reactions, produce bad results, and, learning techniques to manage stress in any form is valuable.

Since many of these tools, such as exercise, can also produce other healthful benefits as well, learning to control and manage stress, particularly in our modern environment, can be vitally important.


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What is Stress?
Page Updated 12:01 PM Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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