Everyone experiences stress at some point in life. Hans Selye, a scientist who popularized the concept of stress, said, “Stress as a scientific concept suffers the misfortune of being too widely known and too poorly understood.”
Despite the fact that stress is one of the most common human experiences, it is surprisingly difficult to define. Scientists say that stress is a force or event that impairs normal stability, balance or functioning.
The following example may make stress easier to understand. The stress of a strong wind might alter the balance of a suspension bridge so that the bridge swings from side to side. Usually people do not even notice the gentle swaying as they drive across the bridge.
When the wind increases, the swaying of the bridge becomes obvious to everyone. Although this swaying might make someone uncomfortable or anxious, it is actually the way that the bridge copes with stress. If the bridge did not sway at all, it would be brittle and more likely to be damaged by the stress of the wind. If the strength of the wind increased dramatically, so that the limits of the bridge were exceeded, the bridge could actually collapse.
Stress in our lives is like that wind. Although stress is often present, it usually goes unnoticed. Sometimes the stress that people experience makes them feel shaky or frightened, as if they, like that bridge, were at risk of collapse. Usually this fear is unrealistic, and people’s foundations are much sturdier than they think. Occasionally, one truly is at risk of collapse; it is critically important to recognize this risk. Most often, however, the real risk that comes from stress is that, over many years, it will damage people’s health and detract from their quality of life.
Understanding Your Body
Medical research can explain the dramatic effects that stress has on one’s body and health.
Stress is really one of the ways that the body protects itself. When danger threatens, the body produces chemical substances called “hormones” that prepare people for action. These hormones, such as adrenaline, are released into the bloodstream and pumped throughout the entire body. They increase the tone in the muscles, preparing a person to jump into motion. They raise the heart rate, so that blood flows more rapidly throughout the tissues. They signal respiration to become more rapid, so that an ample amount of oxygen is available to supply the entire body in a crisis. They even increase the speed of thoughts, helping individuals to plan and think their way out of trouble.
These physical and psychological changes are helpful when people are actually threatened by danger. They are not so helpful if people experience them all day, every day. It is difficult for the body to remain in a state of “red alert” all of the time. If this occurs, people become tired, anxious or depressed.