Everyone feels “stress,” but few people know what it actually is.  We are told that stress is bad for us, that we should manage it, reduce it, and avoid it as much as possible.  Yet for all this, stress is both a natural part of life and, under certain circumstances, actually beneficial to us.

Stress, put most simply, is the body’s reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response.  Most of the time, the stress we feel is our reaction to something we perceive as a threat of some sort.  It is, in other words, part of our “fight or flight” response, hard-wired into us over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

This often confuses people today because they think of the fight or flight response as something that only kicks in when we face imminent physical danger.  But the saber tooth tiger of pre-historic times has been replaced by today’s “threats” to our well-being…things like rush hour traffic that puts us in danger of missing an important appointment, or missing a deadline, or things that could have serious consequences like bouncing a check or having an argument with our boss or spouse.  In these cases the body responds by preparing to flee or fight the perceived attack, harm, or threat to our survival.

The physical feelings we associate with stress are essentially a sequence of nerve cell firings and chemical releases that prepares our body for running or fighting.  In everyday life this can be triggered by the boss’ demand that we finish an assignment (we may want to flight back against an unreasonable demand, or flee, by running away from the responsibility), or by the need to juggle our kids’ conflicting schedules while also trying to figure out how to get dinner on the table or take an elderly relative to a doctor’s appointment (here, wanting to flee the whole situation would be understandable). Stress, put another way, can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.

But stress can also be felt in the face of overwhelming good news.  The person who faints after hearing that he or she won a prize, or upon, say, the unexpected return of a son or daughter who was serving overseas in the military, is also experiencing stress.  It is also true that stress is not in itself, nor is it always, a bad thing.  In small doses, stress can help you get things done because it triggers the release of adrenaline which allows you to make snap decisions, meet challenges, and give you extra alertness. It can, for example, motivate you to begin cleaning up and getting ready when you feel the pressure that comes from having company over to your home.  It can motivate you to finish an assignment, or even to start that assignment sooner than you might do otherwise.

Too much stress, however, can take a toll on your cardiovascular system and other bodily functions, and even cause some symptoms of depression.  Too much stress can cause a person to feel sick often, or to have difficulty sleeping.  In some people it causes a loss of appetite, and in others can lead to binge eating.  It can also show itself in the form of a bad temper, anti-social behavior, emotional outbursts, sexual problems, and a variety of nervous habits.  Too much stress can also hurt our performance at work, because it leads to poor concentration and memory retention.

There are several ways you can reduce the stress in your life, or at least manage the stress that is unavoidable.  One idea is to identify the stressors in your life and make an effort to lessen their impact.  Many experts, for example, point to the increasingly common habit of multitasking as a primary source of stress, and suggest that we all try to stop doing it. Other sources suggest that we cut down on things ranging from TV to caffeine, to certain kinds of music.

In the end, we all have to manage the stress in our lives because, unfortunately, stress is a part of most of our lives.  But if you feel that the stress you are experiencing is getting to be too much, and is having a negative impact on your health, your performance at work, or your relationships, you may need additional advice on how to better manage and reduce it.

If stress has you on the run and is becoming unmanageable, we invite you to call Capital EAP and talk with one of our trained counselors about ways to make it better.