Understanding stress

The Oxford English Dictionary describes stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.

Beyond this, there’s considerable debate about what stress is and what it means.

I’d like to offer a description and understanding of stress from a therapeutic viewpoint.

The body is amazingly adaptable. It can cope with unhealthy food, minimal exercise, a variety of taxing demands, pollutants, different environments and climates. Over a short period, or within certain limits, it’s quite extraordinary what the body can cope with.

However, if the conditions become extreme, or if extra demands on the body are made over a longer period of time, the body can no longer cope and the result is stress.

Stress not only results from excessive or prolonged physical demands; it also results from the thwarting of our emotional (or psychological) needs and wishes.

Frustration, dissatisfaction and lack of fulfilment lead to stress. So do suppressed resentment or anger and internal emotional conflicts.

Very often a number of different factors combine to produce stress. Stressors are cumulative. When we become aware of stress, it is often as a result of several or many different stressful factors: each of which may seem trivial by itself.

When the body becomes stressed, something has to give. The results of stress are not only mental or emotional, but also physical. If the conditions creating stress are not corrected, the body will eventually become damaged, which is to say, diseased.

The symptoms of stress include aches, pains, discomfort, sleep problems, digestive difficulties, allergies and sensitivities, skin problems, tiredness andgeneralmalaise. Stress also lowers the body’s resistance to infection and leads togeneralunderperformance.

Using medication to mask the symptoms of stress is counterproductive: these symptoms inform us that there is something wrong and we should take prompt action.

If we don’t, serious illness can result – including myalgic encephalomyelitis, cancer, heart disease, and so on.

The signs of stress reveal that something is wrong in your life and you must change either yourself or your circumstances.

Whatever the stressors are – work being too demanding, your partnership not satisfying, not sleeping enough, not having enough time for yourself, eating too many unhealthy foods, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, insufficient exercise and so on – you need to make changes.

Jonathan Livingstone

Jonathan Livingstone is a therapist and coach practising in Plettenberg Bay. To reach him, call 0790199449.


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