What Is This Thing Called “Stress”?
YOUR boss yells at you, even though it was someone else who made the mistake.
The teacher at school laughs at you in front of the class.
While you are busy cooking the supper meal your child knocks over a vase and the phone starts ringing.
Yes, you know what stress is—at least to some extent.
When we think of stress, many of us have in mind such pressures of life, or more severe ones such as loss of a mate or mounting bills. But how many of us know what goes on in our body during stress? How can these bodily changes affect our health? What are the symptoms of damaging stress? And how can we best cope with the stress we face, so as to find more happiness and peace?
What Is It?
“Stress” means different things to different people. The term conveys to many the thought of tension or pressure. But that is only part of the picture.
In newspaper accounts of some airplane crashes you may have read that stress led to metal fatigue, causing a part to fail and the plane to crash. That stress was a force on a piece of metal that tended to strain or distort it. It snapped. The plane crashed.
In some ways it can be similar with human stress. It is some physical or emotional thing that affects our body, to which we need to adapt or else we may be harmed. Some examples: You are out in the sun on a hot day. Your body heats up. That is a form of stress. Or you exert yourself in a ball game or when hoeing the garden. Your muscles get tired, because there is a temporary chemical imbalance in them. That is stress, too. Yet you have regulating devices to counteract such stress and restore a healthy balance. One is perspiration to cool your body. Another is a good night’s sleep, which allows your muscles to restore themselves. The stress passes.
But today it is common to think of stress in connection with emotional pressure or tension, which also can produce bodily changes. When we do not appreciate what changes are occurring in us, we may not know how to cooperate with our body’s efforts to adapt.
“Fight or Flight”
Without intending to put you under any tension, we invite you to imagine yourself in this situation: You are walking down a dimly lit street one evening. Up ahead you see three young toughs crossing the street toward you. What happens inside you?
Sensing a possible danger, you feel as if an alarm goes off. You tense and begin breathing more deeply. The hormone adrenaline surges into your bloodstream. Your liver releases stored sugar. The sugar and fat (cholesterol) levels in your blood rise, fueling you for peak performance. Your heart beats faster. More blood flows to your muscles. You are alert, prepared for swift action or decisions. This “fight or flight” response is triggered by emotions such as fear or anger.
However, this response is not of itself bad or harmful. In this case it might ready you to run faster than you thought you could. Or it might help you to control yourself and give a mild answer if insulted. (Prov. 15:1; Matt. 5:39) But the same response also readies you for productive work or play, as in an exciting ball game. Suddenly the ball is coming at you! You must catch it and throw it back quickly. You are keyed up and ready to act.
What, though, if you are under prolonged emotional strain so that you are constantly in this alerted, excited state, with no relieving action for which your body is ready?
For instance, a man has to inspect parts on a rapidly moving assembly line, or he feels that his boss dislikes him, or he must endure at a task that bores or frustrates him. Or a woman has been deserted by her mate. She feels rejected, yet now she must battle the pressures of a secular job, while caring for the children and home in the evenings.
When someone is regularly in such a tense state, with little relief or understanding of how to cope, stress is common. In fact, some authorities term that state “distress,” for it is harmful, prolonged, severe stress that can easily damage the body.
This constant, excessive stress threatens the body’s normal equilibrium. Among other things, it can cause cholesterol to accumulate in the arteries or produce hardening of the arteries. The lymphatic system and white blood cells can be affected, hindering the body’s ability to fight disease and react to foreign substances.
Symptoms You Can Look For
You may feel that no one needs to tell you when you are under stress. But are you sure? It is true that sometimes you can feel the tension or pressure. Yet in many cases persons fail to link certain symptoms with stress. Hence, they may at best take action to deal just with the symptom, never really touching the underlying cause. That may be so with any of us.
For instance, a 39-year-old man got a particularly demanding job assignment, which for months required concentration and extra-time work in the evenings and on weekends. He began sleeping poorly and developed pain in his lower back that special exercises and treatments did not relieve. Was the troubled sleep caused by his back problem, or the other way around? Actually, when the period of intense work was past, both symptoms disappeared. Why? What do you think?
Some common symptoms of excessive stress or tension are:
Unusual irritability: Others notice and even comment that you are more easily angered or disturbed by petty things.
Troubled sleep: It takes you longer than normal to fall asleep, or you find yourself waking up and, for hours, unable to doze off.
Altered breathing: You catch yourself in a pattern of short, shallow breathing with no apparent reason.
Muscle stiffness: Not attributable to healthy work or exercise.
Uneasy or painful stomach: May be associated with loss of appetite or inability to eat more than small amounts at one time.
Excitableness: Change in normal patterns, so that one becomes a nonstop talker, easily begins shaking or trembling over small things.
We shouldn’t assume, of course, that the appearance of any one of such symptoms proves we are the victim of extreme stress that is damaging our health. A person may have back pains because of lacking sufficient exercise, or because he strained muscles due to improper lifting. Someone else may have trouble sleeping because he eats shortly before retiring or drinks coffee or tea in the evening. But if you have some of these symptoms for no accountable reason, you might consider whether you are becoming a victim of damaging stress.
Consider the Causes
No one likes to think about the various pressures on him. Why not just forget our troubles? many think. But since stress can have such harmful results, it would do us good to note a few of the common causes of stress today. If we are aware of these, and perhaps recognize that some of these are affecting us, we will be better equipped to counteract or cope with stress.
The accompanying chart identifies what researchers found to be among life’s most stressful problems or situations. Have you been involved in one of these? Then you likely have experienced stress.
Many persons find that their environment causes stress. They may live in a crowded city where they are always on the defensive, being jammed or squeezed. Steady loud or grating noise also causes stress. This should be noted especially by persons who must live or work under noisy conditions and who then “relax” by punishing their ears with shrill, pounding or blaring music. Poor air can add to one’s burden of stress, too.
We already mentioned some stressful aspects of many jobs. But what adds to the problem for many is the competitive spirit centered on ‘getting ahead’ or acquiring the luxuries that others have. (Compare Ecclesiastes 2:22-24; 4:4.) Doctors in the Federal Republic of Germany “blame most of the country’s stress on the ‘Leistungsgesellschaft’, or ‘performance society’, in which the pursuit of material achievement and conspicuous consumption, born with the German ‘economic miracle’, is still the major feature.”
While sleeplessness may be a symptom of stress, with some it is a cause. They push themselves, trying to squeeze too much in a day, and thus deprive themselves of needed sleep. Also, staying up late to watch TV news or programs, especially those that produce tension, can hurt in two ways—reducing the amount of sleep and hindering sound sleep.
Tense, competitive driving in heavy traffic; constant disharmony in the home or with in-laws; worry over inflation or the dwindling buying power of one’s money; a move to a new school or neighborhood; letting life’s minor irritations produce steady, even though suppressed, anger. These are additional causes of a stress problem for many persons.
While physically and emotionally we are equipped to recover from stress, the effects of stress tend to be cumulative. Complicating this is the fact that as we age (perhaps speeded up by stress itself) our ability to respond to stress diminishes.
But there is no reason for you to despair as if stress is just another burden you cannot escape or overcome. Studies reveal that some 25 percent of survivors of years in Nazi concentration camps—certainly an extreme in prolonged stress—displayed no resulting stress-related physical problems.
So you can do something about this thing called “stress.” And there are even reasons why you can look forward to permanent relief from the problem of stress in your life.
[Box on page 7]
LIFE’S MOST ‘STRESSFUL’ SITUATIONS
RANK LIFE EVENT
1 Death of spouse
3 Marital separation
4 Jail term
5 Death of close family member
6 Personal injury or illness
8 Fired at work
9 Marital reconciliation
11 Change in health of family member
13 Sex difficulties
14 Gain of new family member
15 Business readjustment
Based on research by Drs. T. Holmes and R. H. Rahne—“Modern Maturity.”
[Diagram on page 5]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
YOUR BODY RESPONDS TO STRESS
Fear or anger produces the “fight or flight” response
sugar and fats into blood
tense, ready for action
powerful hormone released