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Stress: Reality or Myth?

Reality
We are all subject to stressors. We all know what it feels like to be stressed out.

But why do we feel stress? Why do we feel a sudden tensing of our muscles and an empty feeling in our stomachs when we hear an angry word or someone makes a threatening gesture towards us? Why do we sometimes feel these feelings before going to work, dealing with an important customer, facing a problem at home or working with a difficult patient?

blankTo answer these questions we need to look back to our ancestors and the environment in which they existed.

Before the invention of mortgages and mobile phones, before the invention of money and megaliths primitive man lived in an environment that was full of threats from other animals; animals who would hunt us as food. Also in times of food shortage there was competition for food between humans. In these situations humans (as well as all the other animals) have developed a mechanism that has improved survival rates.

This behavioral mechanism, in its simplest form, is the "flight, fight and fright" mechanism (The 3F's!). For these are the three types of response that causes part of the nervous system to stimulate the production of chemicals called adrenaline and noradrenaline by the body.

This mechanism still exists today and when we are faced with stressful situations - such as a confrontation, whether it is at home, at work or in the street - we still produce these chemicals in quantity. The problems start when we do not use them up in physical activity such as fighting or running away (not usually, anyway). It is these chemicals that create those tense and empty feelings in our bodies when we are threatened. Feelings like butterflies in the stomach or that desire to do something - anything! - to relieve the tension in our bodies.

In our modern world we enter many situations where we feel threatened by outside stressors. As well as in our work we are stressed by others in less obvious ways. Deadlines, driving (the other drivers of course), shopping, household bills even holidays can add to our stress levels. All these examples and many others lead us to feel pressured and the body responds to these by invoking the 3F's response.

When we continue this response for long periods we become exhausted and run out of physical and psychological resources to call on. Then we become sick.

Our ancestors tended not to suffer from stress related illness for three reasons. Firstly, they rarely lived long enough to develop stress related illnesses, secondly they burned off the chemicals they produced in physical activity and, finally, primitive man rarely suffered stress over extended periods. Once a threat had been removed or diminished he or she relaxed and recommenced more leisurely activities such as grooming or browsing for food or sleeping.

Modern day people have less time to relax and have many more complex demands made of them. Therefore our response to stress has to be different from that of our ancestors. Another point to bear in mind is that prolonged stress can lead to depression and other serious imbalances in our mental states.

Myths
Having identified that stress is a reality and has a biological basis for its existence are there any myths about it? Well, yes plenty.
Stress is always bad for you?
On the basis of the biological description of stress and its causes above we might assume that zero stress would be an ideal state.
Wrong. The body needs some stress in order to remain healthy and active. Human beings need some stimulation, challenge and excitement to keep healthy. Arthur Conan Doyle put it well in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories when he had Holmes say, of an inactive period, "Watson my mind is like a finely tuned machine racing at full speed with nothing connected to the flywheel. If I don't do something soon I shall fly apart."
With nothing to do we would all become ill and apathetic
Minor symptoms are not important.
If some stress is good for us then some symptoms must be O.K.
Wrong, stress is cumulative. If you have some signs of stress - like sweaty palms, irritation, anger or tenseness - then you need to reduce your stress levels. These are the obvious signs of an inability to relax and set aside those feelings and thoughts that cause you stress and could lead on to longer-term problems.
Stress reduction techniques are expensive, complex and require gurus.
If stress is such a complex issue then it must require a complex solution.
Wrong. Each person is different. What works for one may not work for another. Often the simplest solutions are the most effective. Gurus can make suggestions about how to deal with stress but not one can offer a definitive answer to each individual.
Why not? Well, dealing with stress is about commitment, control, motivation and rationalisation. These can only come from within the person who needs to work on their stressors. No amount of money, time or others can provide those qualities.

What are the signs of stress?
There are many signs of stress, physical and mental. Each person shows signs of stress in different ways. No one symptom is more important than any other so don't be fooled into thinking that just because someone who is stressed doesn't display your symptoms those particular symptoms are not important.
Below is a list of symptoms related to stress, but don't think because it is in a leaflet it is complete! People are constantly coming up with new ways to suffer from stress.
Feeling unable to slow down or relax.
Over the top anger at a minor irritation.
Anxiety or tension lasting more than a few days.
Feeling that things frequently go wrong.
Aching neck and shoulder muscles.
Inability to focus attention.
Frequent or prolonged periods of boredom.
Fatigue.
Sexual problems.
Sleep disturbance.
Constipation.
Allergy or asthma attacks.
Frequent colds.
Frequent minor accidents.
Increased consumption of alcohol.
Tension headaches
Migraine headaches.
Cold hands or feet.
Indigestion.
Menstrual distress.
Nausea or vomiting.
Loss of appetite.
Diarrohea.
Ulcers.
Heart palpitations.
Lower back pain.
Shortness of breath.
Frequent low grade infections.
Overeating.
Increased dependence on drugs.
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