Stress results from a build-up of mental and/or physical pressures to a level that we find overwhelming. The amount and type of stress we can stand will vary from individual to individual – for instance, one person may get a buzz from giving a talk to hundreds of people whereas someone else will be a nervous wreck in similar circumstances.
We may all have to go through different stresses in a lifetime – such as bereavement, job loss, relationship breakdown, serious illness, or the demands of caring for children or sick relatives. We have to cope with challenging life changes, such as leaving home for the first time, taking on new responsibilities at work or settling down with a new partner. Even when these are pleasant developments, they can still take a mental and physical toll on us. When lots of little stresses and some big ones happen in a short period of time, we may lose our ability to cope well. If we feel defeated by all we have to do, and lack drive and energy, that is stress.
What is stress?
Stress is the modern-day effect of an evolutionary mechanism known as ‘fight or flight’, designed to save our distant ancestors from dangers in the wild. For instance, when under physiological stress, our muscles may tense, blood pressure soar, the heart race and the chest hurt, as breathing becomes shallow and quick; saliva may dry up and we might sweat and shake. When these bodily changes took place for our ancestors, it was because they faced a major threat, such as a wild boar attack, and they needed to gear up to run for it or to fight for their lives. Once they had taken action, and survived, all the physiological arousal would quickly subside.
Why do we get stressed and what are the symptoms?
But in modern times, it is rarely a wild boar that makes us feel threatened. More often, it may be an over-demanding boss or not having enough control over our work (stress is now the most common cause of long-term sickness absence) or the demands of taking a sick relative to regular hospital appointments while trying to hold down a full-time job. The stress doesn’t end and so the physiological effects don’t ebb. That’s why we get physical symptoms from severe stress, such as disturbed sleep and ailments such as frequent migraines, backache, angina, skin eruptions, bowel problems, stomach cramps or high blood pressure. And we commonly feel highly anxious or depressed.
All these symptoms are warnings that important emotional needs are not being met (maybe our lives feel lonely, too demanding or meaningless) and that something has to change, to bring the harmful stress levels down. That’s why the human givens approach, which focuses on helping people find healthy ways to meet their essential emotional needs, is so effective.