Stress is generally thought of in negative terms, but is all stress bad for you?
The answer is no.
If we lived in a world with no stress, we would also have little to no motivation. For instance, deadlines, promotions, and the desire to succeed and do well all motivate us to work harder and better. Exercise is another example of stress that can yield positive results.
Too little stress can leave us unmotivated and lethargic. Too much stress can cause a multitude of problems as described further below. Even too much “positive stress” can have a negative impact...
Think about it -- you just got married to the love of your life after being single for 32 years. You were promoted to a new position at work that required you to move 4 states away. With the promotion comes more status, more money, more tasks to master, and more responsibility. You are looking to buy your first home, and you just got a puppy. All good things, right? However, that much change, all at once, could throw someone for a loop.
The negative kind...
For this article, the focus will be on stress or stressors that we consider to be negative in nature: the sick child, the speeding ticket, sexual harassment, financial difficulties, and the list could go on.
Stress can be acute or chronic in nature. Acute stress includes those stressors that have a definitive beginning and end. Chronic stressors are those stressors that seem to have no end in sight. Acute stress might include a flat tire on the way to work. Chronic stress might include a physical ailment with no cure. Acute and chronic don’t necessarily allude to the severity of the stress.
For example, the chronic physical ailment might be an irritating twitch in your cheek, and an acute stressor might be your house that was destroyed in an explosion caused by a gas leak. However, a never-ending chronic stress that wears on a person day after day, can leave the person feeling hopeless and burned out. In addition, it is unfortunate that most people don’t have the option of just one stressor, or even one type of stressor. But instead, most people deal with a combination of all of the above.
What factors make the stress most detrimental?
There are three factors worthy of discussion.
First of all, the severity of the stress makes a difference. Receiving a diagnosis of the common cold versus the diagnosis of cancer has very different impacts. One leaves you annoyed, and the other leaves you reeling.
Secondly, the amount of stress is important to note. Even little stressors in great numbers can have a large impact. They may be things that one at a time, you could handle without even as much as a blink. But experienced all at once, they make you short-tempered, unfocused, and overwhelmed.
Finally, consider the duration of a stressor. A severe stressor, if you know it is short-lived, can be handled. However, a stressor that has no end in sight can seem intolerable. Worst case scenario: Imagine multiple stressors, many severe in nature, that don’t seem to have a solution.
Everyone has his or her limits, and everyone’s limits are different.
What might be the straw that broke the camel’s back in one situation, may be a fleeting irritant to someone else. Personality style, experience, resiliency levels, and many other factors contribute to how different people handle stressors. Regardless of what it takes to reach the breaking point, the results are very similar. They include the possibility of physical symptoms, mental and emotional changes, and behavioral and relational impacts.
Physical symptoms include, but are not limited to, muscle tension, headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, decrease of the immune system, diarrhea, constipation, increased risk of cancer, heart problems, hypertension, rashes, changes in sexual desire, heartburn, nausea, insomnia, increase or decrease in appetite, tremors, and increase of blood sugar levels. Over the years, the statistics have remained consistent: 75-90% of all doctor’s visits involve disease, disorders, and ailments that are stress related.
Stress can have a far-reaching impact on emotional and mental states as well, causing depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, mood swings, lack of focus and concentration, lack of mental clarity, irritability, feelings of loneliness, edginess, racing thoughts, forgetfulness, confusion, feeling overwhelmed, suicidal or homicidal thoughts, trouble learning new information, difficulty making decisions, feelings of worthlessness, and the list could go on.
Last but not least, stress can impact a person’s behaviors and relationships including compulsive behaviors, recklessness, carelessness, social withdrawal and isolation, communication problems, an increase in smoking, drinking, or drug use, aggressiveness, impulse buying, gambling, reduced work efficiency, procrastination, lack of punctuality, poor hygiene, increased arguments, excessive defensiveness, and marital discord.
What is your stress level? Are you experiencing the negative impacts of stress? If so, where is the stress coming from? If your stress is primarily work related, you should read the next article: Stress: “Part 2, Work Related Stress”. If it’s not work related, move on to “Part 3: Stress Reduction Strategies.”