Stress: A matter of perception

The World Health Organisation refers to stress as the “health epidemic of the 21st century”. Just reading that is enough to make you feel a little stressed. Still, although it can be a disruptive force for many of us, understanding why we feel stressed in the first place can help us take proactive steps towards coping better with the demands we all face in our lives.

We use the word “stress” to describe a variety of different scenarios and situations we often find ourselves in. But what is it?

The modern idea of stress was introduced by Dr Hans Selye in the 1950s who defined it as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions”. More simply put, stress is a normal physical and psychological response to demands placed upon us. Now, these demands can vary enormously and our responses can also vary, depending on a variety of factors. With that in mind, let’s look at two key points around stress which may be helpful to understand:

  1. Our response to any demand, and therefore our feelings of stress, can vary, depending on our perception of the demand itself.
  2. We feel ‘stressed’ when we feel that we don’t have the necessary resources to meet the demand we are faced with. 

Things like fatigue, hunger, conflict, uncertainty, insufficient or ineffective social support and the impact of other stressors, can all deplete our resources and make us more prone to the negative symptoms associated with stress. This can manifest as physiological responses such as panic attacks, restlessness, difficulty sleeping and poor concentration. It can also lead to emotional responses such as irritability, low mood, hopelessness, and despair. Over time, our physical health and our mental health can suffer.

However, if we feel equipped with the necessary resources to meet the demands we are faced with, then we are less likely to be negatively impacted by them. In fact, besides taking steps towards looking after our personal resources, the research shows that the very act of perceiving a demand as something we can handle and even grow from reduces the intensity of the stress response and actually supports our wellbeing in the long run [1].  It can be the difference between a demand becoming a stressor or a challenge.

The important takeaway here is that demands and difficulties are normal parts of everyday life, but we all have the capacity to meet them in a way that supports rather than detracts from our mental health. We can do this by taking proactive steps towards keeping our physical, mental and emotional resources topped up, and positively reframing our mindset around our potential stressors. We’ll explore this further in the next post.

References:

[1] Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response.

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