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What is stress?

Written by Thomas Greenfield

Most people think stress is bad. We simply do not realise what the word “stress” means.

A stress is only a stress if we perceive it to be so.

For example, an academic exam may be extremely stressful to one person, whereas to another person they may view the SAME exam as not stressful at all.

The “stressor” (the exam) is the same, but the 2 perceptions are different, so 2 different outcomes.

When someone experiences stress in a negative way, we say they are in “DIS-stress”.

But when someone experiences stress in a positive way, we call it “EU-STRESS”.

You might be fooled into saying well in that case stress can be broken down into 2 kinds: Positive & Negative. You might think they are polarities of stress, or opposites. You might even think one is “bad” and one “good”.

This is not the case.

Eustress & Distress: They simply refer to whether the human body has the capacity to deal with the stressor without being overwhelmed.

The definition of EU-stress is:

a form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being. The epitome of eustress is Flow (ultimate eustress experience), where the consistent eustress is aligned with a soul’s purpose whilst in complete presence, to create a peak experience of life.

Once the amount of stress perceived exceeds the capacity of the body to deal with it, the stress no longer becomes beneficial; it becomes too much and is detrimental to the system. We call this DIS-stress.

The same stressor at a lower volume may have initiated beneficial outcomes, whereas at a higher level above the threshold will cause dis-ease in the system and thus destruction.

Distress is a state of stress which overwhelms the capacity of the body and therefore produces negative adaptations to seek a means of coping.

This diagram illustrates the effect of low-high stress on our performance levels;

At low stress, we have low performance capacity. People who spend most of their time in this phase, stay in their comfort zone and experience little to no growth.

At calm stress, we have mild performance capacity. A person may step outside of their comfort zone from time to time and see growth.

At Eustress optimum stress we have increasing maximum capacity, to the point of peak capacity, whereby the amount of stress becomes overload, and then are capacity decreases again. This is healthy, as we are still in Eustress.

The purpose of this overload phase is for our body to recognise that we are no longer at peak capacity and to prevent further damage.

It is only when we do not recognise that we are in the overload phase that we are in danger of entering DISTRESS and burnout.

It would be great to say let’s stay in the optimum stress phase 24/7 and life will be fantastic. We can sustain optimum stress for limited amount of time, and this state is known as flow. This is where everything just comes together to create blissfulness. To stay here indefinitely is impossible. Life is all about polarities. Ups and Downs. Ebbs and flows.

The body is the same, and it is governed by the autonomic nervous system. The 2 sides of the autonomics are the Sympathetic response (Flight, Fight or Freeze) and the para-sympathetic response (Rest & Digest). This is controlled by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis.

When one is experiencing low stress, we primarily operate in the parasympathetic nervous system. This resting response is everything to do with anabolism(creation). The body is creating regeneration and growth in all cells of the body. A few key things happen here such as blood flow to the digestive organs, sleep regulation and moderated blood pressure via the Vagus nerve.

When we experience anything above low stress, the sympathetic response kicks in. This is the bodies reaction to stress to create catabolism and the ability to liberate energy for change.

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