What is Stress?
     Stress is a word that is part of our everyday vocabulary, but we don't often stop to think about it, instead dismissing it as an unwelcome but tolerated fact of life.  Technically defined, stress is our automatic physiological response to any event or situation that requires us to adjust to change - the events or changes themselves are referred to as "stressors".   (For more detailed information about the body's physiological response to stress, click here.)
    So what happens within our bodies when we are faced with a stressful situation?  Once the brain perceives some sort of threat (physical, mental, or emotional), it signals the body to begin producing certain chemicals that cause changes within our bodies.  These changes evolved to help us respond to physical threats (tensed muscles, sharper mental focus, etc), but no matter what type of stressor is causing the change, the same physical reactions will occur.  Things like increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and muscle tension - while they would definitely help a caveman flee from a tiger, they don't serve much purpose when we're late for work and stuck in traffic.  These physical reactions can lead to other things, like headache, nausea, dry mouth, cold sweat, abdominal pain, dizziness, or tremors.  These are all completely normal physical sensations caused by the chemical changes in your body due to a stressor. 
     Most of us have many stressors that have become constant in our daily lives: long hours at work, ever-increasing prices of gas and other necessities, lack of quality time with our loved ones...not to mention the random, daily stressors that pop up from time to time, like a confrontation with a hostile coworker, or a flat tire, or having to skip lunch because there's a project deadline looming.      
       But what about things like a wedding, birth of a child, or promotion at work?  Most people wouldn't consider these events "stressful", but they certainly are!  Any event - traumatic, frustrating, or joyous - that causes a change in a person's life can cause stress.     
        Good stress?  Can there really be such a thing?  Of course!  The term for this is eustress (as opposed to distress), and it's actually a necessity - good stress is what accounts for our ability to be productive and accomplish our daily tasks.  As with most things, however, stress is really on a continuum; the problem arises when we reach our "peak" tolerance but the stress continues.  This graph helps to illustrate the concept:         
        It almost seems like a Catch-22: too LITTLE stress, and we become depressed and apathetic...but too MUCH stress, and we become overloaded and start to burn out.  So what do we do?  We learn - and use! - successful ways to deal with the buildup of stress before it can take over our lives. 
        As we grow from children into adults, we are taught many things: how to tie our own shoes, how to study in school, how to do our own laundry and cooking, how to get into college, and how to do our jobs.  Sadly, one thing that many people are never taught is how to successfully manage stress. 
        Each person is unique, and so responds to an excess of stress differently; some choose exercise or sports, while others choose artistic expression.  Some may prefer to talk about it with a trusted friend or partner, and others may prefer to keep a personal journal.  How  we cope with our daily stress is less important than whether  we cope with it.  One of the worst things that we can do is to simply ignore it and pretend that nothing is wrong...but unfortunately, an alarming percentage of people choose to do just that. 
        Fortunately, the Stress Management Team specializes in helping people work through the causes of their stress, and helping them to develop healthy coping strategies that will help guard against the feelings of overload and breakdown that inevitably come with carrying the burden of stress alone.  There is a wealth of information, advice, and suggestions here on our site that you might find useful, and our staff is also available if you have any questions or would like to request an appointment with one of our counselors to help create a personalized stress management plan that will work for you. 
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