Stress is a term that is frequently used in everyday conversation. The conventional meaning of the word stress – too much to do, too much to worry about – was not part of the vocabulary some fifty years ago. In the 1930s the Hungarian scientist Hans Selye, the godfather of stress research, took an engineering concept and applied it to humans 1. Stress in general refers to force exerted on a system. In human terms however it would more correctly refer to circumstances that either threaten or are perceived to be threatening to a person’s wellbeing and consequently be taxing on their ability to cope with these circumstances 2.
There is also stress which is not as particularized or subjective, such as ambient stress. This stress encompasses situations like constant environmental conditions which are difficult, if not impossible, to control by the individual, i.e. excessive noise, traffic, pollution and crowding2. According to Ewart and Suchday’s, researchers 6 who developed a scale called City Stress Inventory (CSI), urban poverty and violence can also be considered as sources of environmental stress 2.
An important point to make is that the perception of a threat can be as stressing as an actual threat and the body and brain can react in exactly the same way as a result. Body and mind relationship have been studied by medical researchers for a long time now. The so-called placebo effect is a good example of this phenomenon where in clinical experiments, people who are given inert substances made to look like medicines, such as a sugar pill, often experience the same health improvement as those patients who are given real medication. Researchers have also noted that some conditions and illnesses have no physical explanations. Doctors classify these conditions as psychosomatic, as they seem to be caused by the psyche 8.
It is also worth noting that the same event may be stressful to one person and be non-stressful to another3. As Lazarus and Folkman assert, there is both a primary and a secondary appraisal of stress. Therefore, the level of stress that one particular event can produce will depend not only on whether the person views the event as a threat or not (being the primary appraisal), but also how the person will assess their own coping ability towards the level of stress that is anticipated from the event (being the secondary appraisal) 4. It is therefore fair to say that stress lies in the eye of the beholder 2.
Dr Suzanne Kobasa also confirmed that some individuals are more stress resistant than others. These “stress-hardy” people are more likely to have a sense of control over events in their lives, a strong commitment to something outside of themselves, and an ability to view stress and change as challenges and opportunities instead of threats 5. Shelley Taylor in her book Positive Illusions reviews the evidence and concludes that it is the feeling of being in control, more than the actual degree of control we have, that comforts us and insulates us from stress 7. It is important to understand that stress is only harmful when it is excessive, acute and/or chronic. A lot of the stress that we all experience is helpful as it can stimulate, challenge and motivate us. An attempt to avoid stress completely is virtually impossible and would lead to a rather boring existence. Human beings appear to also need a level of eustress, a type of stress that is fun and excitement, in their life in order to keep them vital. The problem comes when one experiences too much stress1.
Acute stress is experienced in response to an immediate perceived threat, either physical, emotional or psychological. Chronic stress on the other hand is a state of ongoing physiological arousal 1. This occurs when the body experiences so many stressors that the body’s nervous system...