Posted on Feb 2nd, 2006

From the time of the first human beings, stress has been with us. It is part of our natural response to challenging situations. When our forefathers were faced with a potentially dangerous situation, such as facing a wild animal, the stress response would ready the body for ‘fight or flight’. Stress chemicals (such as adrenaline and cortisol) would be released, resulting in changes such as an increase of blood sugar for instant energy, blood being diverted away from digestive system and skin to ‘feed’ the muscles, faster and shallower breathing to increase oxygen intake. These, and other stress related changes were brought about for one thing only…. to deal quickly with the stressful situation, either by confronting it or running away. Once the situation had been resolved, the body would return to normal. The stress response was, for early man, a life saver!

The human stress response has not changed since the time of primitive man. However, the situations that trigger stress have changed a great deal. The physiological changes brought about by stress can still be a positive event in situations which can be resolved within a reasonable timescale. An example of this might be an athlete preparing for a race or an actor preparing for a stage production. In cases like these, heightened arousal produced by stress can improve performance. We have probably all experienced situations, where the added edge of competition or a deadline has been the motivation we have needed for effective action. In these cases also, the bodily changes can be stepped down once the situation stimulating the stress has been resolved.

The problem with stress occurs when the situation producing the stress cannot be resolved within a reasonable time period. Remember, nature designed the stress response for immediate action, either to deal with the situation or to remove ourselves from it (’fight or flight’). When this does not happen, the prolonged exposure to the stress chemicals and the changes they produce start to become harmful. It becomes chemical warfare in our own bodies and repetitive exposure to excessive and unresolved stress can lead to weakening of the immune system, physical and nervous exhaustion, illness and in extreme cases, death.

As mentioned before, the way our bodies respond to stress has not changed since prehistoric man, but the situations that cause us stress can be very different. Most of us no longer have to worry about hunting food or escaping from wild animals, but the high pressure and fast pace of modern living has brought with it many more insidious stresses, which constantly invade our life. These stresses, can vary from continually having to meet work related targets and unrealistic deadlines to being stuck in a traffic jam. A lot of these situations, especially when accumulated over time, can keep your body flooded with stress chemicals for far longer than nature intended. Unless we find ways to deal with this, the result, as outlined earlier, is a deterioration in health.

So what can we do about this? Well first of all, we need to understand that stress in focussed situations can be positive, but excessive or prolonged stress is harmful to our health. We need to build time into our busy lives to include activities which allow our bodies to rest, relax and flush away excess stress chemicals. These activities will vary according to the individual and might include spending time with your family, exercise, reading a book, following a hobby, or just simply taking a ‘chill out’ break to chat to friends. Anything which gives your mind and body a break.

Employers also have a duty to help employees manage their work related stress and should take this very seriously since, apart from the cost to the individual, it has been estimated that in America alone, the stress-related annual cost to industry through absence, health charges, insurance and reduced productivity runs into billions of dollars.

It has also been demonstrated that stress responses rise when individuals perceive themselves to be in a situation in which they have no control or input. Good channels of communication and mechanisms through which employees can be consulted on issues which affect them are therefore important in developing a healthy working environment.

There are many other issues which can have a bearing on management of stress levels, such as diet, time management, environment, etc, but these will be the subject of another article. The thrust of this article has been to point out that the stress response can be positive when faced with a focussed challenge, but harmful when it becomes prolonged or excessive. It is in everyone’s interest, including employers, to ensure that stress does not become a destructive factor.

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Michael Russell
Your Independent guide to Stress
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