We've become used to thinking about stress in terms of specific issues or circumstances. For example, exam stress, stress from noise, relationship stress and so on. This is a very practical way of thinking about stress as it helps to isolate the cause and to devise ways of dealing or coping with it. Stress is one of those words we freely throw around. Everyone has a broad appreciation of its meaning but perhaps not so many will know that there is no single approach sophisticated enough to capture and explain its actual complexity
One way to think about stress is by category. Psychologists sometimes contrast eustress with distress. Eustress (acute stress) is the call to action our bodies need when something needs to be done. As part of our survival mechanism, this form of stress represents the fight-or-flight mechanism that protects us from harm by giving us the potential to get away. Eustress is a necessary part of our arousal system but what's interesting about this type of stress is that it can feel very uncomfortable or pleasantly stimulating. For some people the point of driving fast cars, participating in competitive sports or taking a hair-raising ride at a Theme Park, is to feel the rush of an adrenaline surge. This alone tells us that stress is very much a perceptual thing. What terrifies one person gives another pleasure.
Distress, conveys the problems we experience with stress overload. If our stress system remains switched on for days and weeks at a time we reach a point where stress becomes chronic. The causes of chronic stress are varied and include living in poverty, coping with a long-term sick relative, an unhappy marriage, work-related issues and so on. Chronic stress affects the immune system and is associated with everything from cuts and grazes taking longer to heal, through to heart disease. The psychological effects of chronic stress include mood swings, depression, inability to concentrate and increased anxiety.
So far I've looked at stress mainly from the perspective of how it affects us but where stress gets awkward is in trying to explain it theoretically. There are in fact a range of perspectives on stress that derive from different theories, some of which are more accepted than others. Stress has been examined from an evolutionary perspective and this is where we get our ‘fight or flight' versus ‘rest and digest' ideas. The ‘hourglass model' is a perspective on stress that involves a state of general physiological arousal. Here, a number of social, environmental and psychological issues feed into a common area (the bottleneck of the hourglass) and what comes through is a wide variety of possible outcomes. Other theorists focus on adaptation, some on life and health changes and some on stress as a transaction. These represent just a sample of the various approaches that attempt, or have attempted, to explain the exact nature of stress.
It may seem curious that we know so much about stress yet still find such difficulty in explaining it. In may ways this is really no different to certain disease processes where we know the effects of the disease and may even be able to treat them, but their actual cause or certain aspects of the disease, remain elusive.
Published On: April 16, 2011