It is a question that has beguiled many in its definition. The term itself is amorphous, often misused and definitely misunderstood in its affect. The Oxford English Dictionary, says it is, “a state of mental or emotional strain, or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.
One thing is definite; stress is a double-edged sword, as there are good and bad stresses, that promote positive (referred to as eustress) and negative wellness (referred to as distress), respectively. It is an unavoidable consequence of life and its experience triggers and stimulates very different biological responses that affect each of us in different ways.
You will start experiencing stress when the combination of internal and external pressures exceeds your capacity and ability to cope with the situation; critically though, how much stress you experience will be dependent on your past experiences and the environmental conditions present.
It is often the case that you will not experience the same level of stress for the same stress-inducing triggers every time. Additionally, under identical circumstances, no two people will experience nor react to the same stress-inducing trigger, e.g. an upcoming job interview or presentation may induce stress (distress) in one person and be stimulating (eustress) to another. (Cox & MacKay, 1976)
Once stress exceeds the individual’s ability to cope, it results in a series of dysfunctional physical and mental responses. These can result in temporary or longer-term disruption of health and behaviour, ranging from impaired decision making to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and from disturbed digestion, to ulcers and heart disease.
Whether eustress or distress, stress comprises two components – physiological and psychological. Both are inter-related and as to which component we experience first, and to what intensity, is determined by the nature of the triggering event.
The Physiological Component:
Initially coined by Walter Cannon, this component is commonly described as the “Flight or Fight” response, as it describes the way our body reacts to stress. The fight or flight response is initiated by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, causing the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. This leads to an increased heart rate and heightened alertness, preparing the body to react to any threatening stimuli (referred to as acute stressors), either fight or run away effectively at short notice.
Acute Stressors are short term in nature, longer term continuous stressors are termed chronic stressors and these have a different impact on the body (Hans Selye).
A Psychological Component:
Given that no two people will have the same psychological reaction to stress (Cox and MacKay), it’s not so much the actual demands that are significant, it’s how we mentally perceive these demands and our ability to cope with them. Eg. A person who perceives their mental ability to cope as weak will experience more stress. Conversely, where the level of psychological demand is low we will be well within our comfort zone but we would not be mentally stimulated and our mental sharpness and vitality would decrease.
The Symptoms of Stress?
Knowing that there is good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress), we can look at the positive and negative implications associated with both.
Eustress: The Good Stress
Eustress helps us to improve our performance, by increasing our mental acuity and agility. A certain amount of positive stress keeps us pepped up to meet all challenges and is necessary for our survival and progress in life.
We create eustress when we want to perform well at a particular task in order to achieve a beneficial outcome, such as performing well in exams or athletic events. If the students did not study harder or the athletes not train hard enough, they would not be in the mental or physical state to achieve the desired outcome of passing the exams or beating their personal best times.
However, if we are unable to manage the level of stress and find ourselves unable to cope, then eustress transforms into distress which degrades our ability to perform, ultimately leading to exhaustion, ill-health and, finally breakdown.
Distress: The Bad Stress (see graph below)
Distress comes into being when we are under more stress than we can handle. If our failure to manage and overcome the circumstances that gave rise to the distress in the first instance, was limited (A – B), then the chances are that when we next encounter the same or similar circumstances (B – C), we would be more resilient and hence improve the chances of our success (C – D).
If the psychological impact of our initial failure was deep and strong, then the chances are that not only would we fail again, we would also be reinforcing our failure to perform into our psyche, the unconscious. In the long term, when confronted with the same circumstances, we would experience a sense of mental paralysis – where we just stare at the problem and worry about it without being able to do anything about it (D – E).
Damage caused by Distress
Significant prolonged exposure to distress has profound implications on our physical and psychological wellbeing. In our modern lives, psychological stressors dominate over physiological stressors, as we are highly unlikely to fall to predation, but instead worry about things that may never happen, or consequences of specific events, such as divorce, parenthood, financial stagnation etc.
The psychological component often expresses and presents itself (somatization) as a myriad physical illnesses and disorders. It causes changes and imbalances to our body’s circadian rhythms, creating a chemical and hormonal imbalance in our bodies. This eventually leads to a reduction in our neurons (vital for memory and communication between nerve cells in our brain), significantly reducing our immune system, destroying our cardiovascular system, increasing irritability and nervousness, inviting disorders with sleep and eating etc.
A few symptoms of distress are:
• Emotional effects:
o Increased forgetfulness, loss and reduced span of concentration
o Increasing confusion, indecisiveness, apathy and hesitation in decision making
o Loss of sense of humour and increased seriousness
o Increasing irritability
o Continued defeatist outlook
o Turning into a hypochondriac, with strong negative perspectives
o Loss of confidence and increasing anxiety
o Onset and increasing depressive moods
o Heightened sense of fear, increasing phobic reactions
• Physical effects:
o Constant restlessness and increased fidgety
o Palpitations and nausea
o Cold sweats, sweaty palms and generally increased sweatiness
o Sexual dysfunction (erectile, fridigity etc)
o Muscular tensions (headaches, migraines etc)
o Anorexia, obesity and bulimia
o Feeling faint
o Increased skin irritations e.g. eczema, psoriasis, neurodermatitis, lichen planus
o Reduced immunity to minor illnesses and viral attacks
o Hair loss, alopecia
o IBS, Chrones disease, constipation, digestion and gastro-intestinal problems
o Insomnia etc
There are many treatments for distress ranging from dietary, pharmacological and meditative. However, they all invariable focus on suppressing the actual physical symptoms. This is ineffective in the long term, leading to a reoccurrence of the original symptom or rise to other symptoms.
How Edensgate can help:
Edensgate Hypnotherapy employs an alternative approach, using a combination of deep relaxation and guided imagery, to direct the mind to use all its senses to resolve the challenging stressful triggers at the root. By employing analysis, fragmentation and desensitizing techniques, Edensgate hypnotherapy will provide you with the platform to confront and conquer the stressful situations, thereby enabling you to regain control of your thoughts, feelings and behaviour in the long term.
Bansi Shah is a registered clinical hypnotherapist with the British Society of Clinical Hypnosis (BSCH) and the General Hypnotherapy Register (GHR).