Of the many daily struggles and inconveniences that permeate the life of the modern individual, stress is probably the most prevalent, yet also the most misunderstood. The association most people make when they hear the word “stress” is that of a mild or severe mental discomfort that could be triggered by both internal and external stimuli. While, in a sense, this is not an inherently wrong way of thinking about stress, it’s a very restrictive one.
Indeed, the subjective feeling of being stressed can often be described as a kind of negative emotional state. A feeling of constantly being on edge and not having the ability to relax. However, as unpleasant as stress could be at times, it’s also a very useful and important tool that nature has given us to help us overcome difficult situations. Therefore, having a deeper understanding of what stress is, how it manifests itself, and what its symptoms are, can let us use this tool to our advantage rather than let it overwhelm us and ultimately make our lives miserable.
To properly understand stress, we must first get familiar with its different types. There are different schools of thought when it comes to classifying the types of stress, but one of the most popular classifications, proposed by the Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye, is to divide stress into two sets of two opposing categories.
The first set includes eustress and distress, where eustress is what’s described as “good” stress (think of euphoria) and distress is the “bad” type of stress - the one that causes discomfort, emotional pain, anger, anxiety, etc.
The other set of stress categories are hyperstress, referring to instances of too much stress, and hypostress, referring to when the levels of stress are low.
As can be seen from this categorization, stress isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing, but rather a neutral physiological response to a wide variety of stimuli, and so it is the person’s own perception of a given stimulus that determines whether the stress is “good” or “bad”.
Take for example a rollercoaster ride - something that would undoubtedly induce stress in the majority of people. However, if you are someone who enjoys the thrill of the ride, the stress caused by it will be perceived as good. On the contrary, if you aren’t a fan of rollercoasters, you will likely feel miserable if you took a ride in one, due to all the stress that this will cause you.
From the earliest stages of our evolution to the current day, stress has always been instrumental in our survival and prosperity as a species. Whether we are talking about a prehistoric human about to throw a spear at a wooly mammoth or a current-day student making last-minute preparations for their end-of-term presentation, it’s the stress felt in both situations that provides the means for the best possible performance.
Think about this the next time you feel under a lot of stress. You might be feeling miserable at the moment, but, ultimately, the stress you are going through right now is on your side. It is an ally helping you with whatever challenge you are facing. You need that stress because it is what will ultimately give you the best chances of overcoming the obstacles in your way.
This is also why it is advised that people try to get out of their comfort zones. It’s because this causes them to feel more stress, but also gets them used to that feeling and allows them to accept it as something that’s really helping them. Here, the ultimate goal is to get your stress response under control and to then channel it into the task at hand. This leads to a state of mind often referred to as “the zone”, in which a person is able to give their top performance with a certain task, and stress is an essential part of this.
Obviously, we wouldn’t be here talking about stress if it was only a positive thing. As helpful as stress can be, the reality is that, a lot of times, it can also turn into a problem that can cripple our ability to lead a normal and fulfilling life. This mainly happens when a person feels high levels of stress (distress) over an extended period of time.
As I said above, stress is useful for dealing with challenging situations, but it’s supposed to go away the moment the situation is resolved. But what if the situation cannot be resolved quickly? For instance, if the stress-inducing situation is simply having a job that’s stressful, then the stress will continue to be a part of your day-to-day life. And if you are ultimately unable to handle it, this can make you feel miserable all the time and even lead to mental and physical health problems. In such cases, people must be willing to step back for a moment and take an honest look at the situation and at themselves. If a given situation is causing you too much stress and there are no indications that either the situation or your ability to handle the stress will change in the foreseeable future, it will probably be best if you got out of that situation, if possible.
Finally, we come to the results of what excessive bad stress can cause in a person. The symptoms of excessive stress can be both physiological and psychological, some of which are shown below.
Changes in appetite
Changes in weight
Constantly feeling nervous and on edge
Problems with sleeping
If it is determined that stress is what’s causing any of these or other symptoms, you should consider making changes in your life to address the underlying problem. Remember that excessive stress over long periods of time is known to cause all kinds of problems related to a person’s health, relationships, professional life, and personal life. Even something as simple as being prone to lashing out at someone close because you’ve been feeling on edge due to stress can have long-lasting negative effects in your life, which is why it’s important to find a way to reduce your levels of stress.
And if you are in a stressful situation that can’t be changed right away, then you need to make an effort to train your mind to become more resilient to stress. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises, as well as taking up a hobby and being more social are all things that are known to help people cope with stress. More stress relief techniques and strategies to cope with this issue are most often presented in anger management and stress control classes. On the flip side, alcohol, drugs, and junk food, while being able to provide a temporary stress relief, are ultimately guaranteed to make things worse, so they must be avoided as much as possible if you are feeling overly-stressed.
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