by: Shena Fowler
Although stress is often viewed as a negative, it is actually a natural and normal physical response. A stress response is simply the body’s ability to defend and protect itself. This fight-or-flight reaction can help a person stay energetic, alert, and focused. These behaviors can be beneficial. A winning touchdown, successful board room presentation, or an A on a test can all be partially due to a healthy stress response. However, too much stress can become harmful and can cause extreme damage to a person – physically, mentally, and relationally.
Chronic stress is caused when the body is subjected to an overwhelming amount of physical and psychological threats. Since the body cannot differentiate between extreme or moderate stress triggers, it reacts with the same intensity, regardless of how major or minor the cause. This means that a bounced check or a long commute can be the catalyst for intense stress related symptoms (that may feel as intense as a real life-or-death crisis). Symptoms may include muscle tension, headache, fatigue, anxiety, changes in eating habits, mood swings, lack of enthusiasm, and/or an upset stomach.
Each person has a different tolerance level when it comes to calculating stress. It is important for each individual to understand his or her stress level threshold. Factors that influence stress tolerance include: one’s ability to deal with emotions, one’s preparedness for stress-inducing circumstances, one’s sense of control, one’s attitude, one’s support network, one’s physical health and nutritional status, one’s fitness level, and one’s sleep habits. These variables are what enable one person to maintain a sense of calm while another person feels completely overwhelmed.
Just as each person must evaluate the factors that cause stress, it is essential for individuals to consider the ways in which they react to stress, and whether or not their responses need to be altered. Some individuals react by freezing up and becoming extremely internally agitated. Some become very outwardly agitated and may become volatile. Others become withdrawn and show little to no emotion. Understanding personal stress triggers and individual reactions are key in moving forward and coping with stress.
Although stress can affect any individual, those with fast-paced and challenging work environments (such as medical professionals) are more likely to experience the symptoms and signs of stress. Strategies for managing stress (whether it’s work related or personal) include: avoiding unnecessary stress, changing one’s situation or environment, adapting to and accepting one’s environment, upping one’s fitness level, and scheduling time for personal leisure and relaxation. Taking control of one’s life and prioritizing what’s truly important (and worth stressing over) are integral methods of managing stress.