Stress results when mental and/or physical pressures build up to a level that we find overwhelming. The amount and type of stress we can stand/withstand will vary from person to person – for example, one individual will get a buzz from giving a talk to hundreds of people whereas someone else will be a nervous wreck in similar circumstances. We may all have to go through different stressors/stress in our lifetime – such as bereavement, job loss, relationship breakdown, serious illness, or the demands of caring for children or sick relatives. We have to cope with challenging life changes such as leaving home for the first time, taking on new responsibilities at work or settling down with a new partner. Even when these are pleasant developments they can still take a mental and physical toll on us. When lots of small stresses and some big ones happen in a short period of time, we may lose our ability to cope well. If we feel defeated by all we have to do, and lack drive and energy, that is stress.
Stress is the modern day equivalent of an evolutionary mechanism known as ‘fight or flight’, designed to save our distant ancestors from dangers in the wild. For instance, when under physiological stress , our muscles may tense, blood pressure rise, the heart race and the chest hurt, as breathing becomes shallow and quick; saliva may dry up and we may sweat and shake. When these bodily changes took place for our ancestors it was because they faced a major threat, such as a wild boar attack, and they needed to gear up to run for it or fight for their lives. Once they had taken action, and survived, all the physiological arousal would rapidly subside.
In modern times, it is rarely a wild boar that makes us feel threatened. It more likely to be an over-demanding boss, or not having enough control over our work [stress is now the most common cause of long-tem sickness absence] or the demands of looking after a sick relative while trying to hold down a full time job. The stress doesn’t end so the physiological effects don’t ebb. That’s why we get physical symptoms from severe stress, such as disturbed sleep, migraines or backache and raised blood pressure. And we commonly feel highly anxious or depressed. All these symptoms are warnings that important emotional needs are not being met – maybe our lives feel lonely, too demanding or meaningless.
If you are suffering from stress I would work with you to find healthy ways to meet your essential emotional needs and to bring the harmful stress levels down.