Stress - should we really be 'managing' it?

The other day a colleague of mine said to the work room, “I have to give a session on ‘stress management’. Any ideas for what I should talk about?” Her question was met with groans. And grunts. And “Don’t ask me!” And even laughter.

I struggle with the concept of ‘stress management’. Firstly, it’s a definitional thing. ‘Stress’ is such a vague, catch-all, airy-fairy, difficult-to-narrow-down-WTF-it-actually-means type of word. And secondly, once we figure it out, is ‘managing it’ really the best thing for us? Or should we be preventing it? Or even adapting to it? Let me rant on this for a while.

It seems like for most people, stress is a really simple concept. The word gets tossed around all the time. But what exactly is it? Is it the same thing as physiological arousal? Is it the same thing as “workload”? Is it any different from anxiety or frustration or anger? Is it the cause of trauma? Is it anything at all?

Let’s think about stress through the concept of change, because life really is one big long process of change. Pretty much anything that involves change contains within it the “demand” that we adapt to it, in one way or another. Graduating from school can be as demanding as starting school, and starting a new job can be as demanding as losing a job.

How we perceive the change really determines how we manage to adapt to it.

If the perception is positive, we generally embrace the change with open arms and relief. And the story essentially ends there.

If the perception is negative—that is, if the change challenges our stamina or resources—the body will automatically—and dramatically—respond to this perceived threat with a variety of physiological responses.

In the early 20th century, Walter Cannon’s research in biological psychology led him to describe the “fight or flight” response of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to perceived threats to physical or emotional security. Cannon found that SNS arousal in response to perceived threats involves several elements which prepare the body physiologically either to take a stand and fight off an attacker or to flee from the danger:

  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • Perspiration increases
  • Hearing and vision become more acute
  • Hands and feet get cold, because blood is directed away from the extremities to the large muscles in order to prepare for fighting or fleeing.

In the 1950s Hans Selye first popularised the concept of “stress”. Selye theorised that all individuals respond to all types of threatening situations in the same manner, and he called this the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).  Hans Selye claimed that, in addition to SNS arousal, other bodily systems such as the adrenal cortex and pituitary gland may be involved in a response to threat. For example, chemicals such as epinephrine (adrenaline) may serve to focus the body’s attention just on immediate self-preservation by inhibiting such functions as digestion, reproduction, tissue repair, and immune responses. Ultimately, as the threat wanes, Selye suggested, body functions return to normal, allowing the body to focus on healing and growth again. But if the threat is prolonged and chronic, the SNS arousal never gets “turned off,” and health can be impaired. With a continuously suppressed immune system, for example, a person would be more vulnerable than usual to infection—which is one explanation of why some individuals get sick so often.

Regardless of whether Selye was right or not, psychology, as well as medicine and popular culture, have accepted the concept of “stress” as an unpleasant fact of life.

Okay, so if that is definition sorted. Stress is related to our physiology of arousal during periods of change. I suppose I can handle that.

So how do we manage unwanted increases in physiological arousal? There’s heaps of wonderful things we can do there. We could exercise. Engage in calming activities. Practice relaxation and meditation. All of these things will help our body and nervous system to settle readjust. Stress managed.

So am I now jumping at the bit to give a presentation on stress management? Hells, no.

It takes so, so, so much effort and time to become skilful at managing ‘stress’. And intervening once stress has actually occurred can mean that the process itself can even be stressful. Once we are in a state of heightened arousal, implementing a management technique can be really, really difficult. Would it not then be a bit smarter, to spend some time developing good stress prevention skills that minimise the need for strenuous self-soothing efforts in the first place? Look instead at the things we can do to reduce and minimise our chances of becoming distressed?

I don’t really have any grand ideas for what ‘stress prevention’ would look like. But I reckon it would also include that vague, airy-fairy-hard-to-define-word ‘balance’. Maybe it would be the ongoing cultivation of a balanced perspective towards one’s life and place within the world. And generally speaking, perhaps the following steps would assist us to reduce stress:

  • becoming aware of what our true needs are and are not
  • understanding how to meet our true needs

Efforts to clarify values, ambitions and social boundaries; to become aware of physical limitations and meet basic needs; to be able to say “yes” to things and “no” to others; to recognise and intervene early when our triggers for stress are set off; and to cultivate a positive, optimistic and emotionally resilient attitude towards life and to the process of change.  

So many sources of stress are totally unavoidable. We can’t prevent, control or change stressors, such as the death or a loved one, the rise or fall of interest rates or the behaviour of our boss. Acceptance can be really, really freaking difficult, but when there are so many things in life beyond our control, accepting the things we can’t change makes for a much more manageable existence.

It should be stressed here that like all effective stress management techniques, stress prevention is probably not a one-time effort but rather an ongoing discipline. Stress prevention techniques, such as establishing routines based on our true needs and spending time with the people we care about as well as ensuring our relaxation and calming techniques are up to scratch, would need to be regularly revisited in a sort of ongoing life-maintenance project if their benefits are to be continuously enjoyed. Life is not a static thing, but rather an evolving and dynamic process. The ‘balance’ and perspective that works well for one chapter of our life may be quite crap for a later chapter, requiring revision and updating to take place.

Now, that’s a stressful thought.

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