What is Stress?
Stress has been a very common and popular topic in the world. Due to the rapid changes in the lifestyle of modern people, fast-paced; long working hours; competition among different population, many people found that stress exists in every corner unavoidably.
When people discussing stress, usually they regard it as a negative term as it generally generates a lot of undesirable health symptoms.
This article will discuss the definition of stress; how does it arise; why stress can be both positive and negative depends on one’s perception and management skills; the problem-focused strategies for managing it; and finally the meaning of achieving life equilibrium.
The Definition of Stress
Stress does not sound like something fresh or new to everyone, but this word in fact can be a bit tricky and confusing. It can be easily mixed up with other terms like worry and anxiety. Besides, stress can be highly subjective. When different people are facing the same stimulus, their responses can be extremely different.
As a real example here: some of my family members are highly sensitive to noises, of course most people feel irritated under deafening noise environment but my family members feel disturbing or could not sleep even the noises are just slight. In such case, noises can become a stressor or even a serious problem to them, because they cannot concentrate on their work or sound asleep. However, for myself I don’t have any problems with that same level of noises, I could still work; study or sleep as usual.
People with different culture; mindset; abilities; perception; personalities; etc… may have their own definition of stress, not necessarily equal to each other. Hans Selye defined stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change.” (Selye, 1936)
It is generally accepted the description of stress indicates the phenomenon when an individual is facing a threat; crisis; challenge; difficulty or critical illness (such as cancers; heart diseases; AIDS; etc…) on oneself or his/her important someone like family members. When coping with such critical situation, as a natural defence mechanism, human being will consciously or unconsciously generate fight-or-flight reaction to boost energy or concentration to defend; protect; avoid or solve the problem. The degree and duration of stress varies upon the source of stress is situational or transitional; the competence of oneself and the level of one’s social support.
In short, if a person is capable; flexible about adjustments; surrounded by warm and caring people, they may feel stressful when facing a challenge as other normal people do, but it is expected they can treat stress positively, turn it into an opportunity of personal growth; valuable experience and practical lesson in future life. Therefore, it makes sense to describe stress as a neutral term, if a positive and successful consequence is developed with stress, stress become positively termed “eustress”.
In contrast, if negative effect occurs with stress, stress termed “distress”. The most common symptoms of stress are muscle tension; headache; stomachache; rapid heartbeat and breathing rate; insomnia; excessive worry; low energy; forgetfulness; poor concentration; loss of appetite and sexual desire, etc... Suicide or death in the worst case could happen if an individual is struggling to cope with stress and suffering mentally or physically or both for a long term.
A simplified concept of stress is a defensive mechanism, includes the combination of stressor (cause of stress), stress reactivity (emotional and physiological arousal) and strain (psychological or physical or behavioural outcome of stress reactivity).
The Common Sources of Stress
Nowadays, many people complain their life is too stressful, the degree of stress has been increasing and exist everywhere unavoidably. Indeed, there are many different psychological models of stress developed especially for work stress and family stress. Although many people thought they suffered a lot from stress, they may not spend time to deeply analyse what is going on and the reason(s) behind.
Our perception of stress may be affected by our locus of control, i.e. People with an internal locus of control tend to stay proactive, they believe although no one can predict what will happen tomorrow, they can try to be well-prepared, and focus on what they can do rather than what they cannot.
On the contrary, people with an external locus of control are more passive, they see themselves as a victim when things go wrong, blame the environment or people around, use uncontrollable factors as an excuse for not able to be success. If we give a piece of paper to someone and ask him/she to write down their reason(s) of feeling stressful, everyone should have written a different version. However, there could be one similarity: stress is always representing the problem(s) people are facing.
No matter what kind of problems people are facing, problems are commonly equal to the gap between reality and expectation. Expectation can be one’s own expectation, or the expectation from one’s parents; bosses; teachers; etc…
Based on the above assumption, we could firstly categorize two types of stressors:
(1) Intra-personal stressors
occur within an individual person, can be emotions and feelings arisen by one’s own expectation and perception.
(2) Inter-personal stressors occur during the social interaction, usually related to one’s role expectation, in another word, the expectations to an individual from other people.
Secondly, depends on the nature of event and its duration, we can further categorise stress to these three types:
(1) Acute stress, comes with short-term effect, the most common type of stress occur in our daily live, For example: the night before examination or public speech
(2) Episodic acute stress indicates a frequent or regular occurring of acute stress, this commonly found on irritated and aggressive people. For example: rushing to work everyday during peak hours with packed public transit
(3) Chronic stress is the most serious type, ongoing and long-term, and can be harmful to human body. For example: living in a dangerous city, feeling unsafe all the time.
Lastly, we can distinguish the source of our stressors between different life aspects.
Many people could understand this perspective without confusion, here are the most common examples:
● Personal Stress
Fear of or being discriminated against one’s identity such as race; appearance and education level
● Occupational Stress
The irrational expectation from boss; long working hours; unemployment
● School Stress
School bullying; expectation from parents; uncertainty about the future
● Financial Stress
Lack of job security; deduction or loss of income; money loss in personal investments; housing loans
● Interpersonal Stress
This happens on all age group of people, for eaxmple the hard time to communicate with friends or family or couple; difficult to resolve a conflict with; bullying...
The Path to Successful Stress Management
Assuming that stress is always representing the problems people are facing, stress management can be described as problem solving. Learning of stress management in this way can be imagined as a process of skill development. Therefore, the first step also the most important step is to identify the problem. It may sound easy by just reading between the lines but in reality may not really.
This step requires a self-reflection as well as an honest self-evaluation. Ability to self-reflection enables an individual to aware of one’s own problems or symptoms at an early stage, this is lucky because the harm of stress will not be too serious. Self-evaluation helps an individual to identify the current condition and status accurately, as a foundation for the further solutions. If this first step goes wrong, no matter what follow-up actions are taken, failure may be in the end, just similar to a doctor prescribe a wrong medication to a patient. We may take some psychological self-quiz about stress or consult experts.
The second step is to work out the action plan for stress management. This step is probably easier than the first step, but still can be challenging and painful. The keyword is change. Change may not be easy for everyone, but always the necessary element in the problem solving process. Think about if someone keep thinking the same way; act in the same style; adapt the same methods; in short keeping all factors at the same conditions, is it possible to achieve a different outcome if everything simply remains unchanged? Of course the answer is no. However, do not be too ambitious or greedy from the beginning, design a realistic; workable; and rational plan. Stick your excited blueprint on the wall, never leave it at the bottom of your drawer so it becomes totally invisible.
The third step is to carry out the decided action plan, to realize it step by step. Always keep track of your own progress and status, the best is to mark down every single completed task on a written or digital journal, also take a simple record on the response or benefits related to you related to those actions you have taken. Have a regular reflection on those positive outcome will motivate you to stick with the stress management plan, those failed actions also allow a better understanding of yourself, so you will not wasting time on unhelpful technique, you can be well-adjusted.
It is good idea to announce your brand new stress management plan to your good friends; supportive family members and to share your milestones with them. If possible, hire a personal life coach to help you out and support you in the adjustment process. A good coach is not an instructor, he/she will not instruct you how to do, instead he/she will help you understand yourself; get a picture on what you want to achieve and try to discover and unleash your full potential, so you will achieve your peak performance by your own ability. They should not give you any fast-food recipes, i.e. easy; fast; simple and stereotyped instructions for you to follow.
Everyone is unique, it is worth to spend lifelong time to self-explore because our potential should never reach the maximum no matter which lifespan stage we are.
The final step is simple. If the stress management plan is successful, treat yourself nicely, celebrate with your loved ones with a champagne. Be thankful to their kind support, success always does not come alone, everyone needs others support. If you get stuck and failed, no need to be frustrated, stress management could be a lifelong task, just go back to step one and try again. Learn from mistakes, failure can also be a valuable asset if you take the long view.
The basic steps of stress management are introduced above. To be successful, a foundation of both positive mental and physical condition is necessary. Sports; Meditation; Reading of personal growth materials; Watching humour movies; Share jokes; Maintaining a heathy lifestyle including wake-up and sleep early; avoid smoking and excess consumption of coffee; alcohol; other addicted items. Be thankful and humble all the time no matter you have religious belief or not, this will enhance your personal image; enable a likeable personality and strengthen your social support network.
Commit to be a Balanced Person and Aim for Life Equilibrium
It would be wonderful for a person to start their stress management plan, no matter success or not, at least he/she is aware of the problem, also take the initial step. It is not uncommon many people give up or get stuck in the progress or feel frustrated when the plan is not going smoothly. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The path to success usually is not a straight line, so it could be a lifelong commitment.
Although the definition of success varies by an individual, a healthy and happy life can be considered as reaching at the status of life equilibrium. Imagine if someone is very rich but he/she is suffering from a serious illness, the life is probably rich but still painful. Or an elite student has achieved top performance at school, but he/she never allocate time to family and friends, so nobody support or share the happiness with, that could be depressed and lonely.
We don’t need to always be the winner on every single thing in our life, instead, try to be a balanced person, and to allocate our time and resources among different life aspects. With this in mind, our life can become less stressful also more meaningful.
Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash