“Happy is he who learns to bear what he cannot change!”
– J.C.F. von Schiller
Finding any one definition for a complex condition is a hard task by anybodies standards. Any attempt we make to so do will ultimately fall short. Several definitions have been offered which tend to emphasise either the feeling of stress or the physical mechanics of stress. The most commonly accepted definition of stress (mainly attributed to Richard S Lazarus) is that stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.
My definition comes in two parts as follows:
- Stress is the feeling that you are losing or have lost control of a situation and that you cannot cope or have become overwhelmed.
- Stress is the body in survival mode.
Together this means that stress is a physical condition induced by your perception of a situation. When human beings perceive a threat of any sort, the brain orders the release of adrenaline into the blood stream. This is an instant boost of energy that enables you to fight harder or to run faster. It is the fight or flight survival instinct that has kept us alive as a species.
A perceived threat does not have to be physical to prompt this response. It could be the fear of failure, embarrassment, humiliation or rejection that flips the body and mind into survival mode. When this occurs, the heart beats faster and the blood pressure is raised. The result being more oxygen and blood sugars to empower important muscles. At that point sweat is released to cool those muscles down. Blood is diverted away from the skin to the core so as to minimise the impact of a cut and the mind focuses exclusively on the threat.
In this state people become irritable, anxious, jumpy and defensive. They lose sleep thinking about the problem or working hard to resolve it. Getting along with others becomes difficult; judgement is clouded as is their mental focus and little things cause huge outbursts. Many in this state resort to chemical releases of tension such as alcohol and tobacco.
It is easy to see how this state would have an impact on your performance at work, but what is not so easy to see is how this state, over a prolonged period affects the bodies immune system and makes you more susceptible to high blood pressure, colds, influenza, ulcers, heart disease, strokes and cancer. All of these conditions can be induced by chronic stress.
In this respect prolonged stress has the same affect on the body as does failing to heed the warning lights on your dash board. It all leads to a break down. What we call burnout is really the end result of exhaustion. At this stage, the body and mind have been in red-alert survival mode for too long and can no longer fight or flee. The individual then simply quits and withdraws, not just from the situation but from society and from reality. Not only does the victim lose the energy to deal with the situation at hand but they also lose the energy to deal with every day chores. Getting up and having a shower may seem difficult. Going to work is off the menu and socialising with anyone may be out of the question. Instead, these normal activities may be replaced by unusual or addictive ones. Mental illnesses may arrive in the form of chronic anxiety, paranoia, depression and even schizophrenia.
The psychotic, physical and behavioural symptoms of burn out then create another set of problems on top of the ones that caused the stress in the first place. The spiral leads downwards and can end up with a host of self-destructive behaviours including drug overdose, alcoholism or outright suicide. Every suicide victim leaves a note; the note says, ‘I couldn’t cope and can’t take this any longer! I’ve run out of ideas, solutions, options and energy. Now death seems better than living!’ The distortions that lead to this way of thinking are developed throughout prolonged periods of unresolved conflict.
With this definition in mind it seems difficult to see how stress can become our ally. When you understand that stress is the natural response to your perception of a situation, then you can appreciate the fact that nature probably knows best and has enabled the fight/flight rapid response mechanism for very good reasons.