We tend to think of stress solely as something harmful. We commonly speak of being “under stress”, “stressed out” and “suffering from” stress. At certain levels stress can most certainly be a problem but we need to remember that stress is essential to life. Confusion has arisen partly because we use the same word when referring to the action upon us and our response to it. The question for us is how to recognise what is harmful stress and what stressors actually invigorate our lives. We need to know how to manage stress and our response to it in ways that promote health and wellbeing.
Stress may best be understood as a demand (the stressor) that is either placed upon us (by circumstance), or that we allow to be placed upon us (as in choosing a particular job or lifestyle) or one that arises within us (such as self-generated expectations). The demands may be physical, mental or emotional but it is important to remember that each area affects the other.
If we want our muscles to grow stronger we must place demands upon them. We must put them to work under pressure. If we want to perform better, whatever our field or endeavour, we must ask more of ourselves. Ask any elite athlete, actor or even bomb disposal expert when they perform to their best and they will probably tell you when it is when the pressure is truly on. But ask too much and failure or harm may result. Conversely, too little stress can be damaging. How often to do we hear of a person who shortly after retirement from a busy job rapidly falls into ill health and even dies? The huge decrease in daily stimulation takes a toll.
It is true to say that most people are concerned about too much stress. When the demands are excessive the system that was first galvanised to deal with the demands begins to break down. A variety of symptoms may occur to signal distress including injury, burn-out, exhaustion, compromised immunity, depression. It may include less severe signs like reduced efficiency, sleep disturbance, forgetfulness or ill temper. Often the short-term coping strategies such as consuming addictive substances become a source of harmful stress themselves.
Abstaining from exercise is not applicable as some exercise is essential to good health. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) may be the best model to help the person recognise and self-manage the dividing line between excessive and moderate, healthy exercise. This will require insight into what drives the addiction-like behaviour and social support for change.
In turning to stress management we need to think about the relationship between the volume and intensity of demands on the one hand and our capacity or fitness to cope with them on the other.
Don’t ignore the symptoms
Identify harmful stressors; include all possible sources
Identify poor coping responses
Identify healthier responses
Identify positive stressors
A stress-management retreat may provide the time and environment in which to begin to reset the balance between fitness and capacity and the volume and intensity of demands on the system.