According to the dictionary definition from our good friends at Merriam-Webster (below), STRESS is all about a physical presence of pressure and/or tension, however it can most certainly form the basis of an emotional experience.
strɛs / noun
- pressure or tension exerted on a material object. “The distribution of stress is uniform across the bar.”
Synonyms: pressure, tension, strain, tightness, tautness; rare tensity.
- a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. “He’s obviously under a lot of stress.”
Synonyms: strain, pressure, tension, nervous tension, worry, anxiety, nervousness.
I suggest however that Poor Ol’ Stress, as a word, a concept, and an emotional state, gets continual bad press. “Oh, I am stressed! Oh, the stress! I am stressed OUT!”. I read these statements as complaints: it’s as if stress has become an Arbitrary, Omnipresent and Merciless Tyrant of Great and All Powerful Reach in all of our lives.
Time to demystify stress, me thinks …
Firstly, stress can be a MOTIVATING factor in people’s lives. Stress, as a source of tension, can remind us of our responsibilities, the very reason we leave our warm beds and face the world to make money, do things and/or be productive human beings.
Without stress, we may simply flop about, aimlessly without a sense of purpose or urgency. Add stress: voila, things get done (in fear of the consequences if not done)!
This is where we ADD to our vocabulary and general vernacular.
What is Eustress?
EUSTRESS is our in-built buffer, our capacity to cope with various STRESSORS or sources of stress. Many of us will have a decent capacity for coping with stressors and answering back with empowered zest and self-confidence in being and doing our best.
What is Distress?
Eustress however can slide into DIS-STRESS once we reach a tipping point in coping with various compounding stressors. For example, a backdrop of trauma can impact on personal confidence and thus negative feedback in a work space, along with impending change/s and/or a external adverse events can severely impair eustress.
Common – but not exclusive – signs of DIS-stress are as thus:
- Low energy;
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea;
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles;
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat;
- Frequent colds and infections;
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability.
It is of little surprise to me as a practitioner that the above list can also be signs and symptoms of anxiety and/or depression as yes, dis-stress can be accumulative and lead to the triggering of the known stress hormones, Adrenalin and Cortisol.
Adrenalin and Cortisol brain chemistries, also known as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ syndrome, lead to the shutting down of the ‘smart brain state’ and will depress higher executive brain functioning in the frontal lobe areas, which are responsible for such actions as emotional regulation, planning, decision making and memory etc. People can feel as if they’re walking around in a fog; some may cry or feel fractious. Many do not like this state as they feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, exposed, raw and generally acopic.
The therapeutic alliance and connection may not be able to rid people of their sources of DIS-stress, however using neuro-psycho-therapeutic theories as a guide, people find that they start to feel better, see future hope, and think more clearly about their circumstances.
The power of the mind does warrant some consideration as even a low level negative mindset can continue to trigger a sensitive adrenal system and lead to adrenal fatigue.
In therapy, various strategies can be discussed, trialled and put in place to mitigate the negative impacts of distress, so lives can be placed in a better, more productive balance.
Author: Leigh Fraser-Gray, B Soc Work, B Soc Welfare, Dip Human and Community Services, Voc Grad Dip FDR
Leigh Fraser-Gray is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, with many years of experience in working with people in crisis and/or with a trauma background. She is passionate about maximising resilience in her clients, drawing on solutions focused, strengths based approaches.
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