What comes to mind when you hear the word "Stress"? What does the word "stress" mean to you?
I have asked hundreds of people these two questions, and the answers continue to surprise me. However, what I have come to realize is, the responses always seem to fall under these four categories: people, situations, outcomes and feelings.
People often define the word stress associated with a specific individual, symptoms of stress, causes or a situation they have experienced, the results or outcomes of stress, or by feelings related to stress. Rarely do the people I ask actually define the word stress.
Let's look at how people define it, and then explore some more theoretical definitions of stress. The following is a list of common answers I hear related to these questions.
People: A supervisor, a team member, family member, neighbour, or _____(insert name)
Situations: Money, role confusion, change, conflict and disagreement, no down time, feeling inadequate or having unrealistic expectations can all be situational stressors. Dealing with negative people, unnecessary, relationship issues, parenting, marriage, or loss are also stressful situations.
Outcomes: Dissention, strained relationships, unresolved conflict, and the increased stress from these cause us more and more stress.
Feelings: Frustration, exaggerated emotion, pain, being tired, or feeling confused.
As you see, most of the responses are described in a negative way. However, stress in and of itself is not negative. Simply put, stress can be defined as any external events that have an effect on your body or mind. Stated another way, stress is anything that you respond to physically or mentally. Stress can also be understood as the body's reaction to a change or event that requires either a physical, mental or emotional coping or response. Stress is the result of different stressors faced in life, sort of like the wear and tear on one's body from simply living.
The stress reaction is the result of a release of adrenaline (a stimulant hormone) as it enters the blood stream. This, along with other stress hormones, results in a number of physiological changes in the body (which are intended to be protective in nature). This is referred to as "the fight-or-flight response" because it provides both the strength and energy to either fight the situation or flee from danger. The physiological changes could include any or all of the following: an increase in heart rate and blood pressure (to get more blood to the major muscles, brain and heart), rapid breathing (to take in more oxygen), a tensing and tightening of muscles (preparation for action), increased mental alertness/sharpness and sensitivity of sense organs (to assess the situation and respond quickly), increased blood flow to the brain, heart and muscles and less blood to the skin, digestive tract, kidneys and liver (where it is least needed in times of crisis).
Think about a time where you experienced stress. A great example is driving a vehicle. Picture this: you are driving along listening to your favourite music, noticing some new buildings going up along the highway. Shifting your gaze back to the road, you look forward and realize the front of your vehicle is almost in the car in front of you. Slamming on your brakes, you avoid the accident. Your heart is racing, your breathing is more rapid, and thoughts may be racing through your head. That is an example of the stress reaction with physiological reactions, similar to when we are in conflict or experiencing a stressful situation at work.
The key to managing stress is recognizing the triggers that cause the stress and finding ways that work for you to control your response to those triggers. This won't be the same for everybody so you will need to really pay attention to your environment and how you are responding to the people, situations, outcomes, and feelings produced by your daily interactions.