What is stress?
Every person has experienced stress in some form or other and many writers have defined stress in different ways. Some definitions have gained recognition while others are still been passionately debated, avidly argued and aggressively defended. Stress, if not managed effectively, can cause serious health problems, even death. Self-medication in such situations is never advisable. Only qualified health professionals should treat stress-related illnesses.
What happens to the body in stressful conditions?
Walter Cannon (1932) conducted researches on stress and came up with his theory of “fight-or-flight” response. He found out that when an organism comes in a situation that it cannot comprehend, at that time either the organism fights or runs away. This is so because the organism in the perception of threat, releases such hormones that enable it to survive either by fighting or by fleeing.
In humans, these hormones enable the heart to pump faster, thereby delivering more blood to the body and more oxygen to the body parts. The heart rate and blood pressure increases as it flows much faster delivering sugar and oxygen to important muscles. The sweat glands produce more sweat in an effort to cool down these muscles thereby increasing their efficiency. The blood is diverted from the skin to the core of the body in an effort to minimize blood loss if wounded. The hormones enable the mind to concentrate only on the object of threat so that the individual can exclusively deal with it. All these biochemical actions and reactions take place in direct proportion to the perceived threat, some shock, something unexpected, or something that frustrates. If the threat is small, the response is small, and likewise, if the threat is large the response is large. These biochemical hormones enable the individual to survive stressful conditions.
The darker side of this critical mobilization of the body is that the body becomes more highly-strung, more excitable, more jumpy, more irritable, and more anxious. This state reduces the ability to interact successfully making it difficult to execute precise and controlled skills. In addition, when the mind focuses exclusively on the subject of threat, then it fails to draw from the other sources present and thus no fine judgment is possible.
Hans Selye (1956), one of the founding fathers of stress research, stated, that stress may be good or bad depending on how the person takes it. Exhilarating, successful, and creative work done under stress is beneficial, whereas stress caused by infection, humiliation, or failure is detrimental. He was of the opinion that certain biochemical effects take place irrespective of stress being helpful or harmful.
Modern research is of the view that stress has mainly negative effects, and starts a chain reaction of biochemical actions, which has harmful long-term effects. In a positive environment, such biochemical actions and reactions is not witnessed; hence, it conclusively proves that stress is something ‘bad’ for human health.
Richard S. Lazarus, stated the most widely accepted definition of stress, as a condition or feeling that is experienced by a person when the demands put on the person exceed the social and personal resources that the person is able to garner.
Management of Stress
Stress can be and should be managed to enable survival. Modern working life creates tremendous personal and occupational pressures, which need immediate management and successful resolution. Stress management techniques are many and all of them try to control this fight-flight response. Stress has to be managed with a rational, calm, controlled and socially sensitive approach.
To avoid burnout and debilitated health in the end, stress may be managed by the following techniques:
* Action-oriented approach – In this kind of approach, the problem creating the stress is identified and confronted directly. Appropriate changes are made to alter the situation or the environment and thereby reduce or eliminate stress by resolution of the problem creating the stress.
* Emotion-oriented approach – In this kind of approach, the individual does not have the power to change the environment or the situation. The individual modifies personal emotions to interpret the situation differently and thereby attempts to reduce to eliminate stress.
* Acceptance-oriented approach – In this kind of approach, the individual has no direct or indirect control over the factors causing the stress, along with no emotional control to alter the interpretation of the situation. Total acceptance of the stress is undergone and the focus is only on to somehow let the time pass and survive the stress. This shows results in short term or long term health damages.
* Adaptation-oriented approach – In this kind of approach, the individual adapts to the situation, and instead of trying to fight it, tries to go along with the flow, thereby becoming one of the factors causing stress. This is done with a view that if the individual also becomes one of the factors causing stress then stress shall be diverted to some other individual and thereby the individual shall be free from stress. This approach is widely practiced in office politics, where the officers transfer their stress to their subordinates who again pass it on to their juniors. The negative side of this approach is that if the last individual who finally receives the stress is unable to face it or fails in the resolution of the stress, then additional stress is created, which goes on increasing, and if uncontrolled, may result in a severe mental derangement of the individual, leading even to suicide or death.
There are many other approaches identified by researchers, and any approach that suits the individual should be applied. However, if stress is unbearable and seems to be beyond control, then a qualified health professional should be immediately consulted. Even minor changes in diet or exercise should be informed to the health professional, so that with adequate professional help, stress can be controlled and if possible, eliminated. Alternative therapies like meditation, yoga, deep breathing, etc., are also very popular in the management of stress.