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What is Stress?

Stress is not a modern phenomenon, and comes from the Latin word stringere meaning to draw tight. Many academics have tried to define stress over the years, but the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) say it is: “an adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them”. The pressure in itself is not necessarily bad and many people thrive on it – it is when pressure is experienced as excessive by an individual that ill health can result. Stress is often created through an individual’s irrational responses to problems, and is a mismatch between the perceived demand and the individual’s perceived ability to cope with that demand.

Stress is a deeply personal thing and can be defined in as many ways as people who experience it. With the right amount of pressure on us, we work at our optimum; we will be creative, decisive, alert and stimulated. But what causes stress in one person will not cause another to be bothered at all. The difference is, where one person feels excited about a challenge, a stressed person is experiencing a range of negative thoughts and feelings.

Occupational stress can be defined as the “interaction of work conditions with characteristics of the worker, such that the demands of work exceed the ability of the worker to cope with them”.

The n Curve is based on demand and ability to cope. The right amount of things to cope with can be good for performance and general wellbeing (the peak of your performance/ the top of the n curve). Too little arousal leads to boredom and apathy, as well as undermining concentration, while over-arousal undermines your performance; you feel stressed out when the demands placed upon you outstrip our resources and ability to cope.

Much of the ‘perceived ability’ is based on a person’s past – their education, experience of similar demands, attitudes, beliefs, needs, their genetic condition, their state of health and physical condition, and their personality.

People who manage stress tend to consider life a challenge and have control over their lives. Individuals with a lower frequency of illness and work absenteeism are more stress-hardy, who like new challenges and opportunities, who feel in control and who feel happy making choices. They have a sense of commitment to both family and work. Those who also have a good support system, regularly exercise, and eat well are even less likely to become ill.

Those with low self-esteem are more likely to experience uncertainty about the correctness of their thoughts and emotional reactions, and hence to rely more upon social cues. They seek social approval by others, tend to be more self-critical, and accept without response negative feedback.

Stress need not be a bad thing and positive stress is termed Eustress. It is the type of stress you face when running a race or going for a job interview, because the build up gears you to perform well and hopefully win. Positive stress can be harnessed for short-term productive goals. Signs of Eustress include: euphoria, stimulation, excitement, being sociable, happy, calm, controlled, confident, creative, effective, clear-minded, and lively.

Stress is necessary for life and the only unstressed organism is a dead organism. Stress can be a concept that describes the condition of a healthy, living, growing organism in interaction with its environment. Homeostasis is a tendency to maintain a steady state despite external changes.

Stress is at the root of a lot of ill health. At work, it is often down to poor choices or decisions: being the wrong person in the wrong job; expecting too much from one person; lack of training; poor cultural practices; and a lack of care for the most valuable asset in any company, its people.

According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the estimated cost of sickness absence to the UK as a whole is about £12bn a year; stress accounts for around half of all days lost to work-related ill health; about 1 in 5 people say they find their work either very or extremely stressful; over half a million people report experiencing work-related stress at a level they believe has actually made them ill; each case of stress-related ill health leads to an average of 29 working days lost; and that’s a total of 13.4m working days per year lost to stress, depression and anxiety.

The human body is a wonderful biological machine, but it is not a mechanical machine. When our car breaks down, or the washing machine packs up, we either get a mechanic to put in a new part or, invariably these days, it is cheaper and easier to buy a new one. Yes we can push ourselves under duress and yes we can survive on an unhealthy diet, but there comes a time when our bodies will either need that mechanic for a spare part, or we simply burn out and pack up.

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