A lot of research has been conducted into the area of stress from many different perspectives and industries. Some of the theories are now widely accepted; while others are still being researched.

What complicates things are competing views on what exactly stress is, although intuitively we all feel that we know what stress is, as it is something we have all experienced at some point in our lives. A definition should, therefore, be obvious… except that it is not.

Definition of Stress

Hans Selye was one of the founding fathers of stress research and in his book “The Stress of Life” was that “stress is not necessarily something bad and it all depends on how you take it. So resilience to stress is also of huge import. The stress of exhilarating, creative, successful work is beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection is detrimental.” Selye believed that the biochemical effects of stress would be experienced irrespective of whether the situation was positive or negative. Hence your perspective, or how you relate to it and what you think about it, is key to how your body experiences stress.

Since then, a great deal of further research has been conducted, and ideas have moved on. Stress is now viewed as a “bad thing”, with a range of harmful biochemical and long-term effects. These effects have rarely been observed in positive situations.

The most commonly accepted definition of stress, attributed to Richard S. Lazarus who wrote the book “Psychological Stress and the Coping Process” is that stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” In short, it’s what we feel when we think we’ve lost control of events.

This is the main definition used here, although we also recognize that there is an intertwined instinctive stress response to unexpected events. The stress response inside us is, therefore, part instinct and partly entwined with the way we think about, or our relationship to the stress events.

How We Respond to Stress

Some of the early research on stress, conducted by Walter Cannon in 1932, established the existence of the “fight-or-flight” response. His work showed that when an organism experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive.

In humans, as in other animals, these hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. As well as this, these hormones focus our attention on the threat itself, to the exclusion of everything else, which ​​improves our ability to survive life-threatening events. 

Not only life-threatening events trigger this reaction: we experience it almost any time we come across something unexpected, such as the loss of a job, or something that frustrates our goals. When the threat is small, our response is small and we often do not notice it among the many other distractions of a stressful situation.

Unfortunately, this mobilization of the body for survival also has negative consequences. In this state, we are anxious, panicky, jumpy and irritable. This actually reduces our ability to work effectively with other people and we lose our focus. With trembling and a pounding heart, we can find it difficult to execute precise, controlled skills. The intensity of our focus on survival interferes with our ability to make fine judgments by drawing information from many sources. We find ourselves more accident-prone and less able to make good decisions. We find that our sleep is disturbed and our minds go at a hundred miles an hour, concerns increase.

Hans Selye, believed that a mild level of stress encouraged animals and people to behave in a more active way, while an excessive level of stress would hamper their performance.

Since then, other people have drawn similar conclusions, substituting the idea of “stress” with the idea of “pressure”. Framed in this way, this is an important and valuable idea. With all of its associations of unhappiness and loss of control, real stress is now seen as a bad thing in all circumstances.

There are very few situations in modern working life where this response is useful. Most situations benefit from a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach.

In the short term, we need to keep this fight-or-flight response under control to be effective in our jobs. In the long term we need to keep it under control to avoid problems of poor mental and physical health and burnout.

Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.

In the next article we will further explore stress by digging into how to manage your stress.