What Is Stress?

According to the Encyclopedia of Stress, “stress” is one of the most frequently used but ill-defined words in the English language. We say we’re stressed when we’re late for work and when we can’t pay our bills. We laugh about the stress of the holidays and cry over the stress of a divorce. Even an ostensibly happy occasion—such as the birth of a child—can be stressful.

The encyclopedia defines stress as a “real or interpreted threat to the physiological or psychological integrity of an individual that results in physiological and/or behayioral responses.” In other words, stress is any change in your world that evokes same reaction from you. If you’re a neatness nut, having 10 people staying in your house for a long weekend could be incredibly stressful; but if you don’t mind chaos and clutter, then let the fun begin. If you thrive on to-do lists and deadlines, a week with absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go could make you crazy; another person might feel positively reborn.

“People talk about stress as though it’s a bad thing,” says stress researcher Catherine M. Stoney, Ph.D., a psyehology professor at Ohio State University, “but stress exists inside us. It’s really the interaction between what’s in our environment and how we cope and deal with it.”

Stress is often linked to a shortlived event, such as an argument, But it can be prolonged as well. In faet, the persistent yet subtle pressures of modern-day living are an ever increasing—vyet harder to diagnose— cause of stress. Doctors identify three main classes of stress:

Acute stress. This is the most common form, stemming from the demands and pressures of the recent past and the anticipated demands and pressures of the near future, such as a fast-approaching deadline. Acute stress is the kind you encounter when you first find out vou or someone you love has cancer, when you have a brand new baby; or when you first read a notice from the IRS asking about last year’s taxes. It’s what happens to your body when you swerve to avoid hitting a car or rush across town because you’re late to an appointment.

Episodic acute stress. People in this category move from one episode of acute stress to another. Typically they live lives filled with chaos and crisis. They take on too much, they’re always running late, and their homes are filled with clutter. They never seem to slow down, are quick to anger and, not coincidentally, have higher rates of heart disease. Some are worrywarts, who see disaster around every corner and who live their lives in a constant state of high anxiety.

Chronic stress. This is the subtler,issues—that wears you down every day. It exists in the background of your daily routine. You become so used to it, you don’t even know it’s there anymore. It’s caring for your risk of heart disease. aging parent. or disabled child, working a job in which you have little control, trying to support your family on a salary that never seems to stretch far enough, or coping with a chronic illness like diabetes or heart disease. It’s being trapped in a bad marriage,living in a war zone, or coping with a that bring you pleasure, be dysfunctional family.

Genetically, we’re relatively well equipped me acute | € sa when someone suddenly shouts at you, or begins on page 177. you’re driving in the car and you have to swerve to avoid a collision—the body kicks into gear, releasing a flood of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, known as stress hormones. These, in turn, direct a well-orchestrated response throughout the body. Blood sugar level rises and metabolism speeds up to make more energy readily available. Breathing rate and oxygen consumption also increase, and blood flow changes, with blood being pulled from nonessential areas (like the digestive tract and the small muscles in the fingers and toes) and sent to the brain and major muscle groups that you use to fight or flee, primary the arms. legs, and chest. Even the blood itself is affected, with clotting time decreasing so you’re less likely to bleed todeath if you’re wounded. Meanwhile, the immune system goes dormant because it’s not immediately critical to survival.

This fight-or-flight response enabled our ancestors to deal with a more hostile, physically demanding world of hunting, fighting, and surviving. All well and good for those instances when quick thinking and quick feet are necessary. But when stress hormones are continually released, when your body is continually in fight-or-flight mode, and yet you have no physical release for these surges of energy and hormones, then damage can occur.

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