What Makes us Stronger ?
For Centuries physicists have used the word stress to describe force applied to materials. It was until the 1930’s that Han Selye, a Hungararian born endocrinologist, began using it for live beings.
Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from additional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”
The causes vary enormously : one person may be stressed by exams but happily swim with Great white sharks. Another may have to take sedatives before flying , but adore speaking to a crowd. This makes stress hard to measure.
The American Psychological Association suggests that the most common causes at are to do with money, work and family. Women report being more stressed than men and are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
Young people have long reported more stress than old people. Today’s youth are more overwhelmed than ever before. Globalisation means rapid change in the workplace and firms increasingly expect employees to be constantly connected.
Social media , which may lower stress when used to strengthen connections with friends, have been associated with higher stress when they deliver news of friends’ travails, such as divorces and accidents.
Stress has also been linked to high blood pressure, headaches, stomach upset and insomnia. According to the APA chronic stress can “ravage” the immune system and increase unhealthy behaviours , such as drinking and smoking, that rise the risks of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Petting animals is known to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
Later in his career he came to distinguish between “eustress” or the good stress caused by positive experiences, such as falling in love and distress, the bad sort.
Humans can respond to stress in several different ways. The best –known is the “fight or flight” response, which evolved as a response to sudden danger. The heart rate increases , the veins constrict to limit the bleeding that might follow a brawl and send more blood to the muscles; and the brain focuses on the big picture, with details blurred.
In less extreme situations, the body and brain should react somewhat differently. When people perceive they are being challenged rather than threatened, the heart still beats faster and adrenalin still surges, but the brain is sharper and the body releases a different mix of stress hormones, which aid in recovery and learning. The blood vessels remain more open and the immune system reacts differently, too. Sometimes, though, the wrong response is triggered, and people sitting exams, giving a speech or pitching a business plan react as if to a sudden threat, with negative consequences for both their performance and their long-term health.
The study shows correlation, not causation. But since much stress is unavoidable, working out how to harness it may be wiser than fruitless attempts to banish it.