Does your mother-in-law make you want to bite your nails? Does your work make you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope? What do you do when you just want to scream and stop the world? Stress is a derivation of the Latin word meaning ‘to be drawn tight.’ Which is exactly what happens when too many bills come at once, or your breathing gets faster and more shallow.
A caveman out on a hunt or a soldier on the front line needs the stress response in his body in order to have the energy to fight; the anticipation of the life-or-death experience puts his entire physiology into a state of red alert. So from a positive perspective, stress enables us to meet challenges, to push ourselves into new areas of experience or understanding, through heightening awareness and focusing concentration.
All of this would be fine if we had a bear to hunt or a war to wage. However, the stress most of us are dealing with is not from life-or-death situations, but is the distress that arises from an accumulation of pressure from much smaller issues. And although each separate incident may appear benign, if our response becomes increasingly stressful and we are no longer able to maintain our equilibrium then the body will put out the red alert. The stress response is activated when we are unable to adjust our behavior or deal creatively with demanding circumstances; we soon feel overwhelmed, like a steam cooker coming to full pressure. We are the only one who can turn down the heat, but unfortunately we usually feel powerless to do so.
When there is no animal to hunt or war to fight in which to release the energy accumulating inside us, where does it go? Is it difficult to believe that ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome are connected to high stress levels, that we might get constipation, diarrhea or lose our appetite? What happens to the urge to scream, to lash out, to find release from the tension? Is it surprising that marriages suffer, or that alcohol and food addiction is rising?
In the US, stress-related problems cost the economy up to $300 billion per year, with $7,500 per person lost per year to stress, whether through absenteeism or decreased productivity. According to the American Psychological Association and The American Institute of Stress, over 19 million Americans are affected by stress, 77% suffer from suffer from physical symptoms and 73% from emotional and psychological symptoms, and by one account. That’s a whole lot of stress, and it is on the rise.
Few of us like to think of ourselves as stressed, we prefer to think of stress as what happens to others, without realizing how susceptible we may be ourselves. The most comprehensive study of the causes of stress was done by Drs. Holmes and Rahe at the University of Washington. They based their findings on the level of adjustment required for different circumstances, as the inability to adequately adjust is most likely to stimulate the stress response. Their Social Readjustment Scale placed the death of a spouse as the most difficult circumstance to adapt to, followed by divorce or separation. In more recent studies, money problems and work/unemployment issues are being rated more highly. To that list we must also add environmental stressors, such as pollution, traffic, noise, and increased population.
What must be remembered, however, is that as we all respond differently to circumstances, a divorce may be high on the list of stressors for one person but it may be a welcome relief to another! Our perception of the circumstances and of how well we can cope is the vital factor. For although we may have little or no control over the circumstances or stressors we are dealing with, we do have control over our understanding of the situation, and over our response. Remember: we cannot stop the wind but we can adjust our sails. Although changing our circumstances certainly can help, it may be only temporary. Invariably, no matter where we go or what we do, the change that is the most effective is within ourselves.
In a relaxed state we have access to far greater physical and psychological energy levels. That is why stress-management is fast becoming an integral part of most forward thinking businesses. The greatest lesson we are learning, both individually and collectively, is that we can work with our stress response and develop a higher level of adaptability, and that the results of such change have a far-reaching effect on every aspect of ourselves, each other and our world.