“I’m so stressed!” is a pretty common statement – especially these days. But what do we mean by stress? Is there such a thing as good stress? Between the pace of modern life and extra complications, feeling stress and anxiety may seem like our new normal way of living.
A Little History
In the 1930’s endocrinologist Hans Selye was the first scientist to identify stress as underpinning some symptoms of illness. Selye first incorporated this term into medical terminology to describe the “nonspecific response of the body to any demand.”
In Selye’s definition, stress wasn’t good or bad. How an individual responded to both everyday or extreme stressors was the critical part. Selye believed that sometimes the pressure of stress could provide the motivation we need to adjust our behavior.
Today anxiety disorders are very common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 31% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetime.
Our Perception of Stress and Anxiety
Current scientific knowledge confirms that our perception of stress affects our reaction to it. Although both stress and anxiety are emotional responses, there is a fine line between them. Generally, stress is a reaction to an external trigger. Stress could be short-term such as a business deadline or an argument with someone we love. It could also be long-term caused by chronic illness, poverty, or victimization.
Alternately, anxiety has more of an internal trigger—sometimes just a feeling we have inside. We may have excessive, persistent worries even if we are unable to identify a stressor. We may feel uncertainty, apprehension, dread, and ask the question, “Why do I feel this way?”
Whether external stress or internal anxiety, they share similar psychological and physical symptoms. Both can lead to depression, discouragement, difficulty concentrating, irritability, fatigue, digestive problems, and poor sleep. These symptoms may weigh heavily on self-esteem. Yet, is it possible that an outside stressor such as a job loss or divorce can fuel positive change? Yes, indeed, if we pursue a new career or widen our social circle in response.
A gazelle in the wild will go into fight or flight mode to escape a lion, and humans have the same reaction to immediate danger and stress. This is good and important. Where we differ from the gazelle is that sometimes we develop constant worry, apprehension, or bodily symptoms as a result of anxiety about future “lions.”
Tips to Relieve Stress and Anxiety
As a psychologist, my recommendations for relieving stress and anxiety include strengthening or developing a support system, pursuing a new interest, being active, breathing in fresh air, eating healthy, maintaining a sleep routine, incorporating humor, and observing nature or watching shows with beautiful landscape and terrain.
Mild to moderate levels of stress can respond well to coping mechanisms like these. This tip sheet from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a good overview of some coping strategies you can utilize. A psychologist can also assist you in determining whether more extensive treatment is warranted.