The little lesson about stress
Each of us knows the feeling: everything becomes too much, you feel overwhelmed or exhausted. You feel restless inside and would like to stop time or sleep for 20 hours in a row. Stress has now become a widespread disease, and yet everyone experiences it differently.
You can now find out what you should know about stress.
Definition: What exactly is meant by stress?
There are now numerous definitions of stress. Many of these relate to psychological stress or what we mean by stress these days. From a medical perspective, stress is a physical reaction that is intended to make the body particularly efficient in a short period of time and in no way makes you sick (more on that in a moment). Today I would like to focus particularly on the biopsychological understanding of stress, as this combines the medical/physical component and the subjective feeling of stress (stress as we know it today).
Stress is a process that consists of three components:
- The stress phenomenon is composed of a stimulus, the stressor,
- a subjective one Experiential component (usually with a coping action) and
- a stress reaction that manifests itself through a deflection from physical equilibrium.
I would like to clarify the whole thing with an example. Let's say I'm visiting friends who own a dog. And let's also assume that I didn't like dogs and was afraid of them. My friends' dog jumps at me at the front door to greet me ( stressor ). The fact that the dog comes so close to me upsets me and scares me ( subjective experience component ); I rate the stressor as aversive. I recoiled slightly and tried to hold the dog a little away from me with my hands ( coping action ). My body reacts to the situation by getting warm, my heart beating faster and I notice how my hands are getting sweaty. This is the stress response .
This example shows that stress can mean something different for everyone. If I'm a total dog lover, such a situation wouldn't bother me; I would probably even be very happy about this warm welcome and there would be no stress. The stimulus itself (the dog jumps at me) remains the same, but the subjective experience component looks different and the stress reaction does not occur.
Evolution: Why does my body react to stress?
Evolutionarily speaking, our body's response to stress is a sensible response to stressors that pose an immediate threat to us. For our early ancestors, such threats were primarily predators. This wasn't about personal preference, but about life and death. If our ancestor had to contend with, say, a saber-toothed tiger, he could either fight or flee. In stress research, this “fight-flight response” is viewed as largely congruent with the physical stress response.
Nowadays we are – fortunately – no longer or hardly exposed to such threats. Therefore, today any type of stress that forces the organism to adapt is a stress. This can be anything from working under time pressure and emotional stress, to pressure to make decisions, to lack of food and strong temperature fluctuations. If we don't have the appropriate coping options for these situations, stress occurs.
The problem is that cultural and civilizational requirements are constantly changing and quite quickly. Our genetic makeup, including our body and our brain, cannot keep up. They were unable to adapt quickly enough to the changing conditions. This means that all internal organ systems are activated when a reaction to a stressor has to be made - although in the rarest of cases fight-flight behavior would actually be appropriate.
Stress reaction: How does my body react to stress?
As described above, the body must first perceive a stressor, i.e. a “threatening” stimulus. This stimulus usually appears suddenly (the dog jumping at me / a car honking / the boss showing up in my office / etc.).
The sympathetic nervous system, part of the autonomic nervous system, switches on and primarily controls activation processes such as those necessary for the fight or flight response: It ensures increased blood pressure, an increase in heart performance and dilates the bronchial tubes. Norepinephrine, adrenaline and cortisol are also released. Cortisol in particular is used to provide energy in the body. Muscles become tense.
In this state of increased alertness, the body is ready to face the “dangerous situation”.
Now you can react to the stressor and manage the situation. Then the physical stress reaction subsides again and the body returns to its normal state.
So far we have spoken of acute threatening stimuli. But what happens in the body when we are constantly stressed? Because that’s common practice, especially in our day and age.
The adrenal cortex, which produces and releases stress hormones, is then permanently active. This is very strenuous and exhausting for our bodies. Because the production of stress hormones requires a lot of nutrients and a lot of energy, which will eventually run out. The body can no longer react appropriately and sooner or later goes into a state of exhaustion.
Types of stress: Is there also “good” stress?
We automatically associate stress with negativity. As we saw at the beginning, stress is actually “just” a sensible reaction of our body to protect us from dangers. It has to create an imbalance in order to provide us with enough energy and resources. The birth of a child or a surprise party is also a type of stress... There are basically two types of stress:
Eustress is the type of stress that briefly throws you out of balance, but in the long term is beneficial and helps us move forward. To use the example just given, this can be the birth of a child, a personal challenge, fasting, an exam or even sport. In these situations we become agitated; our body is full of energy.
The counterpart to eustress is distress. This type of stress also throws us off balance and even harms us in the long term. These include requirements and situations that you perceive as negative and that you often cannot handle to your own satisfaction. Distress usually lasts longer or becomes a permanent condition. Typical examples of distress in our society today are: constant availability due to digitalization, fear of the future, time pressure or constant stress from children and work. If you get into distress, you feel overwhelmed and exhausted.
Distress, on the other hand, includes all demands and situations that one perceives as negative. Often you cannot manage them to your own satisfaction. The result: you feel overstressed and exhausted. Typical factors that cause distress in today's society are: constant accessibility due to digitalization, the double burden of having children and a job, and fears of the future due to insecure working relationships.
Stress management: How do I deal with stress?
Some people love sport to really work off some energy. The others would rather do anything than go jogging. This shows once again that the same stimulus can cause eustress for some people and distress for others.
Basically, we can decide for ourselves what stress means to us. Because stress is very subjective. Therefore, stress management is not only aimed at reducing the stress itself, but also at adapting or changing your own way of thinking. Of course, some stress cannot be avoided overnight or simply disappears into thin air. Nevertheless, you can always choose how to deal with stress.
There are professional stress management programs, and you can also learn how to deal with stress through psychotherapy. Chronic stress can have fatal effects on your physical and mental health. To name just a few consequences of stress: cardiovascular diseases, stomach ulcers, death of nerve cells in the brain, depression...
That sounds quite scary and shows once again why it is important to lead a balanced life and to take breaks from time to time. Especially in our society today, many suffer from chronic stress. And it really shouldn't be underestimated.
In this blog post I present some ways to reduce stress that don't require much effort. Maybe there's something for you too!
If you would like to find out more about the topics of mindfulness, healthy eating or sustainability, take a look here over.
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