Stress has been defined as the specific response the body makes to all non-specific demands placed on it.
We need some stress in our life. Hans Selye, one of the pioneers of stress research said, “The absence of stress is death.” He stated that stress was not something that necessarily had to be avoided. It is an everyday fact of life. If we had no stress in our life, it would be very dull. We might as well become couch potatoes. Not all stress is caused by negative events. Planning for vacations, new relationships, promotions, or buying a new home can be very stressful. Stress is any change we have to adjust to.
Stress comes from several main sources: environment, our physical bodies, our minds, change and pressure. Environmental stresses can be a result of noise, pollution, weather, overcrowding, crime, and threats to our self-esteem. Physical stress comes from aging, poor nutrition, illness, accidents, inadequate sleep, and over exhaustion. Anytime we have to adjust to change, we are increasing our lvel of stress, whether that change is positive or negative. Pressure can also be very stressful. It can be the daily pressure of work, deadlines or family, or it can be self-imposed pressure from within.
Our body reacts to stress in what is know as the “fight or flight response.” We inherited this response form our primitive ancestors who needed to be able to fight or flee when they felt threatened in a hostile environment. This is what happens when you are in a stressful situation and your body experience the “fight or flight” response as we gear ourselves up to survive. When an event is perceived as threatening all functions of the body are put on alert to be ready to fight or flee. Our pupils dilate, so we can let in more light and see better. Our hearing becomes more acute, and we become stronger and quicker. (Most of us are familiar with stories of mothers who have lifted cars to save their children.) Our muscles grow tense in order to deal with the perceived threat. Blood leaves our hands and feet, and moves toward our head. This brings more oxygen to the brain, stimulating the thought process. Our hands and feet get cold and clammy as the blood travels behind bony structures where it is more protected. Our heart and breathing rate increase.
This whole process can leave us exhausted. If there is no relief from these changes in the body, chronic stress can result and the body starts breaking down. The immune system weakens. We tend to get sick easily, become accident prone, and take longer to heal. We can develop chronic high blood pressure. Approximately 25 million Americans have high blood pressure and many don’t even know they have it.
By learning how to manage stress, we can minimize the fight or flight response and recuperate from it. Not all stresses require our body to react so intensely. We need to be able to interpret events more objectively, be able to response appropriately, and learn to relax.