What is Stress?
Everyone knows what stress is, but no one knows how to define it. Stress can be anything from coping with a major life change to chronic time and performance pressure… and then there is also that jerk who cut you off in traffic. Your body feels tense, your sleep is wrecked, you snap at your kids. And you definitely don’t have the time to look at raindrops and snowflakes.
Popular press has made sure we all know that stress is bad for us. But did you know that it can also be good for us? Just like many things that are good in small doses and toxic in high doses. Psychological arousal makes us think faster, perform better, learn new things, feel energized. Up to a point. Beyond that point, the more intense the arousal, the less helpful it is. And if the intense arousal becomes chronic, things start going wrong. That's the kind of stress that is bad for us – chronic intense arousal. The figure below illustrates the good and bad effects of stress. It’s called the human function curve.
We begin to feel stressed when we believe or sense that the external demands we are dealing with exceed our resources or ability to cope. Demands can be anything, from a deadline at work to a natural disaster. Resources can also be anything, from a good night's rest to deep trust in own talents. When there are too few demands, we are calm, but might get bored. When the demands only slightly exceed what we are comfortable with, we get agitated, perhaps even exited. We might see this as a positive challenge, an opportunity to learn and to improve. This is our "sweet spot". However, when the demands are much higher than what we feel we are able to manage, our brain turns on the alarm system, also known as the fight-or-flight response. We are all familiar with it: heart races, we get a knot in the stomach, we make mistakes, we can't think clearly and we may lose perspective (more on that in the next section).
Living in a chronic state of alarm takes its toll on our mind and body and leads to exhaustion, both mental and physical (more about chronic stress and exhaustion here). Scientist have repeatedly shown a link between severe chronic stress and poor health, from lower immunity to heart disease.
Learning to manage stress is crucial for our sense of well-being, health, and longevity. And it is not about getting rid of stress. It is more about changing our relationship with it and finding that balance where there is just enough challenge to feel alive, but not enough to drive us to exhaustion.