Annoying colleagues, frustrating personal relationships, whining kids, a tight work schedule, money troubles, and being accessible 24/7 – all that can bring us down. Everywhere you hear “I am stressed out.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a mother or manager, cashier or nurse, stockbroker or construction worker, rich or poor – everybody complains about too much pressure, a much too hectic life and too much stress. “I am stressed out” has become an overused expression and is no longer seen as a cry for help.
Yet the World Health Organization has declared stress to be one of the major health risks of the 21st century – ranked even before the risk factors smoking, fatty foods and lack of physical activity. Worn and burnt out; today this is not just something for whiners and oversensitive people, stress has become a public health concern.
70 percent of the working population in Germany considers life as stressful, every fifth suffers from permanent stress. The generation in their mid-thirties and forties is particularly affected. 80 percent of those in the so-called rush hour of life suffer from stress, according to a study by Techniker Krankenkasse.
If you look at the Amazon book listings, each week at least one new book on the subject of stress is published. The spectrum of titles reaches from “Am I psycho…or will this disappear on its own?”, “Stress Relief For Children and Adolescents” to “Time Out Instead Of Burn Out”. There is advice for every situation and state of life: stress caused by sex, traffic, sports, marriage, work or even free time.
Where does the term come from? One of the pioneers of stress research, Hans Selye, made it popular in 1936. The Austrian-Canadian medical professional discovered that humans and animal have an internal, biological (biochemical) program that is triggered when faced with any kind of danger. He called this pattern of reactions “stress” (synonymous with pressure, burden) and thus gifted “a new word to all languages”.
Shock, resistance, and exhaustion – according to Selye, all people progress through these phases whenever faced with unusual challenges: “Stress is the spice of life.” Even before Selye the American researcher Walter Bradford Cannon discovered that the body reacts with stress whenever it becomes imbalanced. He did not call this emergency reaction stress, but named it the “Fight-or-Flight” reaction.
We inherited these stress systems from our ancient ancestors. Stress used to mean that there was a physical threat. When a sabertooth tiger growled nearby a quick reaction was critical. While under stress the body’s systems act like they are electrified: they release energy and provide the muscles with glucose. The heart starts beating faster, blood pressure and breathing rate climb upwards to provide the body with increased oxygen levels.
The efficient, yet slowly working cerebrum relinquishes control to the brain stem, which now makes decisions, though more of a schematic nature and with a higher error quota. Processes that are not needed during a life-threatening situation are subdued: digestion, sex drive and the immune system.
At the same time the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol flood the body. They desensitize against pain, and wake all the other senses. This system works not only when faced with a sabertooth tiger; it helps in any life-threatening situation such as getting out of a burning house.
On occasion stress can be positive and beneficial. Tough there is a problem: even if it is not a matter of life and death, these days one stress wave after another seems to batter us. Stress is no longer the result of a short episode, followed by exhaustion or relaxation, it has become a continuous situation.
The Stone Age human who fled the sabertooth tiger by climbing a tree was probably better off than his pack mate who continued to stroll through the woods. While the stress concept worked so well faced with the tiger threat, it does not really help cope with a dominant boss at work or deal with a frustrating personal relationship or today’s hyper-networked world. This is where clever solutions and strategies are needed, not the activation of instant fight or flight reactions and quick decisions by the brain stem.
And there is more – the prolonged alerted state of the body acts like slow poison and “can have a lot of harmful effects”, says Günter Stalla, neuro-endocrinologist at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich, “such as on the immune system, slowing down the activity of killer cells, and opening doors for pathogenic organisms.” Chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, tinnitus, sleeplessness, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes or depression, to name just a few examples.
And finally, the resulting energy is not transformed into flight action and physical activity like in our ancestors, but remains trapped in our bodies. The biochemical systems remain on alert and do not calm down. The increased discharge of stress hormones suppresses the production of other hormones. “This causes an increase of fat mass in the body and a decrease of muscle mass.
And the libido may also be affected,” explains Stalla. “Furthermore, an overabundance of stress hormones causes the death of nerve cells and shrinkage of areas of the brain. Recent studies show, for example, that illnesses caused by stress may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s later in life.”
Even commonplace stress can cause panic attacks and mood swings up to ten years later, and thus do not just “ruin the day”, according to a study by the University of California, Irvine. The deciding factor seems to be not the amount of daily stress factors but the subsequent reaction: “Our long-term psychological health depends on our reaction, whether stress causes us to become very afraid or sad,” comments head of research Susan Charles. A person who learns to deal with stress as a challenge rather than as a threat, may be able to protect him- or herself better against its negative effects.
Yet in the worst case scenario there comes a time when all seems lost. The person under stress feels empty, tired, has no drive or energy, literally burnt out. This total exhaustion – also called “burnout” – affects an increasing number of people the world over. In Germany alone sick days taken due to burnout have increased eighteen-fold from 2004 to 2011.
Psychological problems are the second most important reason for sick leave reported by policyholders, according to the Federal Association of Company Health Insurance Funds. In 60 percent of doctor visits by US citizens stress is to blame for causing a health problem. The damage to the economy is immense. Another factor is that psychological disorders commonly generate the longest sick leaves among any health problems.
Critical life events such as accidents or illness, relocation, death of a partner, or even happy events like a wedding, winning the lottery or the birth of a child can create stress, there is no doubt about that. As early as the Sixties two American psychiatrists, Richard Rahe and Thomas Holmes, identified a number of these so-called “Major Life Events” as stress factors and allocated the highest amounts of points on a special scale to them.
Normally, these events are quite rare. The recurring every day stresses, the “Minor Life Events”, however, are much more problematic: busy schedules, not enough sleep, an overabundance of information, continuous brooding, conflicts with growing children, constant interruption at work, lack of positive feedback, unclear goals or frequent trouble with a landlord, to name but a few. Many studies show that these stresses compound each other in total amount and duration and cause problems.
They can be compared to having to listen to irritating background music that causes never-ending annoyance. “Chronic stress is caused by peak after peak of pressure for days, weeks or even years as a result of having to function in a modern society,” Stalla confirms.
A stressor is only really a stressor if it in actuality causes stress. Stress starts in the mind. Example: someone who lives near an airport probably dislikes the noise and sleeps poorly. Anyone who takes a plane to go on vacation probably considers the airplane noise differently.
The objectively measurable decibels have a stronger effect on body and mind if the noise is considered a negative factor. And everyone reacts differently to professional challenges: while one person may be pleased with a new opportunity, others may be afraid of failure. Something that may turn one person angry, may simply cause a smirk on another’s face. The onset of stress is subject to how people evaluate an event depending on their experiences and attitude.
There are patterns of thought that reinforce stress or even initiate it. Psychiatrists like the US researcher Aaron T. Beck classified these typical cognitive distortions. If you internalize everything that is negative, such as the unfriendly neighbor, who never says hello, or the moody colleague, you tend to “personalize” it.
Anyone who always expects the worst even if there are no signs of anything negative, tends to “catastrophize”, and a person who only believes in extremes (good-bad, never-always), tends to “polarize”. Most of us are aware of these types of cognitive distortions. Sometimes they can be helpful, but generally cause even more stress because they distort reality. One concentrates on the problems rather than on the solutions. And the solutions are no longer easy to find because the subsequent tunnel vision limits the cognitive function.
There are still people out there who don’t mind 60-hour weeks, deal with small and large crises without blinking, and seem to be immune against stress and a hectic life. Others react stressed as soon as they hear something they do not like and spend days brooding about it.
Researchers believe that this may be a result of a differently developed level of resiliency, the mental power of resistance. This is influenced not only by personality and a positive attitude towards life, but also by environmental experiences and genes. While the basics are developed from a childhood age, according to author Christina Berndt, resiliency can be learned even as an adult.
But what can help us to best deal with stress? There is no perfect strategy. Some create relief by looking after themselves better in day-to-day life, others relax with the help of yoga, and yet another works off stress with exercise. The double burden of family and work should be dealt with differently than conflicts with a partner or concerns about job security.
The correct coping strategy depends on many factors: What kind of stress type am I? How long does a stress episode last? Can I even influence the situation? What areas of my life are affected? And, of course, there are strategies that cause additional stress. Among them are excessive reactions to deal with negative feelings, blinding the senses with alcohol or drugs, or blocking and denial.
When suffering from acute stress it is important not to react immediately on an emotional level, but to take a deep breath, count to ten, come down and cool off. Next you’ll need to ask a few serious questions to evaluate the situation. This might sound mundane, but is very effective. Is there anything that will affect me? Will I remember this in a few years? If the situation cannot be influenced or changed, it is best to try to accept it. Yes, this is stressful right now. I will make the best of it and face the challenge.