Stressful experiences are a normal part of life, and the human stress response is a survival mechanism that primes us to respond to threats. Is all stress bad? And do we all respond in exactly the same way to stress?
Good stress and bad stress
Research shows that good stress is short-term, it inspires and motivates us, it focuses our energy and enhances our performance. Giving a presentation or speech in front of colleagues or friends and family may make us feel stressed but can also be challenging and satisfying and so we CHOOSE to take it on.
Bad stress, however, is the kind that wears us out, leaves us feeling anxious, jittery and low. Here we are talking about stress that is major and unavoidable such as losing a job, or a serious health crisis.
Even without major stresses or this nature, we may experience lower level but long term, or what is called, chronic stress. Over time, our biological responses to stress can impair our physical and mental health.
What stresses me might not stress you!
It is important to say that the stressful event or circumstance by itself may not be harmful. What matters is how the person interprets the stressor and how he or she copes with it. In his 1966 book, Psychological Stress and the Coping Process, Richard Lazarus defined stress as a relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised as personally significant and as taxing or exceeding resources for coping.
I find this really fascinating! Lazarus says that when faced with a challenge, a person primarily appraises the challenge as either threatening or non-threatening, and secondarily in terms of whether he or she has the resources to respond to or cope with the challenge effectively. If the individual does not believe he or she has the capacity to respond to the challenge or feels a lack of control, he or she is most likely to turn to an emotion-focused coping response such as wishful thinking (e.g. I wish that I could change what is happening or how I feel), distancing (e.g. I’ll try to forget the whole thing), or emphasising the positive (e.g. there may be something I can learn from this).
If a person feels that they have the resources to manage the challenge, he or she will usually develop a problem-focused coping response such as analysis (e.g., I’m making a plan of action and following it).
Acute versus chronic stress
We can also divide stress into what we call acute or chronic. Because people respond differently to stressful circumstances, a situation that one person might find tolerable can become a source of chronic stress for another.
Acute stress usually occurs in response to a short-term stressor, like a car accident or an argument with someone we care about. Acute stress can be very distressing, but it passes quickly and typically responds well to coping techniques like calming breathing or brisk physical activity.
Chronic stress occurs when stressors don’t let up. The roots of chronic stress can vary widely, from situations people can to a large extent control or avoid (such as having a toxic friendship) to difficulties that are hard to escape (poverty, racism or other discrimination).
As my previous blog described, chronic stress can damage both our mental and physical health. Being chronically stressed may leave us feeling fatigued, affect our ability to concentrate and cause headaches and digestive difficulties. People prone to irritable bowel syndrome often find that their symptoms spike with psychological stress. Though acute stress can heighten certain immune responses, the wear-and-tear of chronic stress is bad for the immune system. Chronic stress can also affect cardiac health, with multiple studies finding a link between chronic stress and the development of coronary artery disease.
And finally how does stress affect our behaviour?
This varies from individual to individual but can include some of the following:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
- Impulsive behavior
- Decreased productivity at school or work
- Irritability, anger, and sometimes even aggression
- Loss of interest in appearance and self-care
- Low motivation for exercise
- Difficulty communicating
- Over eating or undereating
- Addictive behaviours such as increased smoking or alcohol consumption, and drugs both prescription or non-prescription etc
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!
According to the World Health Organisation, stress is a significant problem of our times and can affect both our physical as well as our mental health. They have an excellent downloadable booklet, accessed by clicking on this link:https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240003927 or for an audio version, click here:https://www.who.int/publications-detail/9789240003927