Annoying colleagues, frustration in a relationship, whining children, deadline pressure, low bank balance, constant availability - all of this can get us down. "I'm under stress" is the unanimous response.
It doesn't matter whether you're a mother or a manager, a cashier or a nurse, a stockbroker or a construction worker, rich or poor - everyone complains about too much pressure, too much hectic, too much strain. "I'm stressed" - to our ears, that sounds like a phrase repeated too often, not a cry for help.
Yet the World Health Organization has declared stress to be one of the greatest health risks of the 21st century - even ahead of the risk factors of smoking, eating fatty foods and lack of exercise. Today, not only whiners and sensitive people feel exhausted and burnt out, stress has long since become a widespread disease. Unfortunately, people often only deal with the topic of stress management once stress has already broken out. But stress should already be prevented with stress prevention.
In Germany, for example, 70 percent of working people feel that their lives are stressful, and one in five suffers from constant pressure. The generation between the mid-30s and 40s is particularly hard hit: in the rush hour of life, 80 percent feel stressed, according to a study by the German health insurance company Techniker Krankenkasse.
Every week at least one new book on the subject of stress is published, if you believe the Amazon lists. The spectrum of titles ranges from "Am I psycho ... or will it go away on its own?" to "Stress management for children and teenagers" or "Timeout instead of burnout".
There is a suitable guidebook for every situation and situation in life: stress during sex, in traffic jams, during sport, in marriage, in the office or in leisure time.
But where does the term come from? One of the pioneers of stress research, Hans Selye, popularized it in 1936. The Austrian-Canadian physician discovered that humans and animals have a biological (biochemical) program that runs spontaneously in any form of danger.
He called this reaction pattern stress (English: tension, pressure) and thus gave "all languages a new word". Shock phase, resistance phase and exhaustion phase - according to Selye, every person who faces unusual challenges goes through these stages: "Stress is the spice of life."
Even before Selye, the American Walter Bradford Cannon had also discovered that the body reacts with stress when it is out of balance. However, he called the emergency program not stress, but fight-or-flight response.
These stress systems are ancient heritage. In the old days, stress meant a physical threat. When the saber-toothed tiger growled, lightning-fast action was required. When stressed, the body systems react as if electrified: they release energy and supply the muscles with sugar.
The heart beats faster, blood pressure and breathing rate climb so that the body turns over more oxygen. The thorough but slow-working cerebrum cedes power to the brain stem. This now makes the decisions, but more schematically and with a higher margin of error.
Functions that are not needed in the life-threatening situation are suppressed: digestion, sex drive and the immune system. In parallel, the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol flood the body.
They make you insensitive to pain, your senses are wide awake. Not only when a pack of sabre-toothed tigers jumps out of the bushes, the system has proven its worth. Today, it can also help when fleeing a burning house. The lasting health consequences of failing to manage stress can be dramatic.
Occasionally, stress is good and helpful. But the problem is: even when it is not a matter of life and death, today one stress wave after another is often triggered. Stress is no longer linked to a short episode followed by exhaustion or relaxation, but has become a permanent condition.
The Stone Age man who was able to save himself from the tiger by jumping up a tree was certainly better off than his colleague who continued to trot relaxedly through the forest. As well as the stress concept of an eye in an eye with the tiger worked, it is no good for coping with the dominant boss in the office, with frustration in a relationship or the consequences of the electronically networked working world.
What is needed here are clever solutions and strategies, not the activation of immediate fight-or-flight behaviour and fixed decisions from the brain stem.
What's more - the body's constant alertness acts like a creeping poison and "can have many harmful effects," says Günter Stalla, a neuroendocrinologist at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich, "for the immune system, for example, by decreasing the activity of killer cells and opening the door to pathogens."
Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, tinnitus, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, allergies, diabetes or depression, to name just a few examples.
Finally, the energy released is not converted into movement as it once was when prehistoric man escaped; instead, it remains in the body. The biochemical systems are alarmed, but are not reacted to.
Due to the increased release of stress hormones, the production of other hormones is suppressed. "As a result, the fat mass in the body increases and the muscle mass decreases. Libido can also suffer," Stalla explains.
"In addition, too many stress hormones cause nerve cells to die and brain areas to shrink. Recent studies, for example, show that the conditions caused by stress increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease later in life."
Even everyday stress can trigger anxiety and mood swings up to ten years later, rather than just "ruining the current moment." So says a study from the University of California, Irvine.
The decisive factor is not the abundance of daily stress factors, but the reaction to them: "The attitude we adopt, whether stress makes us very anxious or sad, for example, is decisive for our mental health in the long term," says study leader Susan Charles.
Those who learn to view stress as a challenge rather than a threat can protect themselves more effectively against its negative consequences.
In the worst case, however, nothing works at all any more. The stress-ridden person feels empty, tired, lacking in drive and energy, downright burnt out. Total exhaustion - a condition known as burnout - is affecting more and more people worldwide.
In Germany alone, the number of sick days due to burnout increased 18-fold between 2004 and 2011. After musculoskeletal disorders, psychological problems are now the second most important reason for sick leave among compulsorily insured persons, according to the Federal Association of Company Health Insurance Funds.
If US-Americans go to the doctor, stress has triggered the health problems in 60 percent of the cases. The economic damage is immense. Not least because mental illnesses result in by far the longest absences from work.
Critical life events such as an accident or illness, a move, the death of a partner or even joyful events such as a wedding, winning the lottery or the birth of a child can be stressful, no question.
As early as the 1960s, the American psychiatrists Richard Rahe and Thomas Holmes identified a number of these events ("major life events") as so-called stressors and awarded them the most points on a scale. But as a rule, these events are rare.
The recurring everyday stresses, the "minor life events", are much more problematic: deadline pressure, too little sleep, information overload, constant brooding, conflicts with the growing children, constant interruptions at work, lack of positive feedback, unclear targets or constant annoyance with the landlord.
Many researches prove that just these stresses are problematic in their sum and duration. They are like an annoying background music that continuously provides tension. "Chronic stress is the result of long-lasting stress peaks over days, weeks or even years of having to function in a modern society," Stalla also confirms.
A stressor, however, is only a stressor if it actually triggers stress. Stress originates in the mind. For example, if you live near an airport, you will probably find the noise unbearable and sleep badly.
If you are about to fly on holiday, the noise will sound quite different to you. The objectively measurable decibels have a stronger effect on the body and psyche if the noise is experienced negatively. Everyone also reacts differently to challenges at work: while one person is excited about the opportunity, another is tormented by fear of failure.
What drives one person into a rage elicits a sneer from another. The decisive factor for the development of stress is how one evaluates an event on the basis of experiences and attitudes.
There are thought patterns that exacerbate or even trigger stress. Psychiatrists such as the American Aaron T. Beck have classified these typical thinking errors. If, for example, you relate everything negative to yourself, the grumpy neighbour who doesn't say hello or the bad mood of your colleague, you tend to "personalise".
If you always expect the worst, even if there are no signs of it, you tend to "catastrophize", and if you only think in extremes (good - bad, never - always), you tend to "polarize".
Thinking errors like these are probably familiar to most people. Sometimes they help, but more often than not they produce more stress because they block out reality. You focus on the problems instead of solutions. Then you can't find them at all because tunnel vision limits your perception.
Nevertheless, there are people who happily work 60-hour weeks, master large and small crises with flying colors and seem to be immune to stress and hectic. Others, on the other hand, get under a lot of pressure just for saying the wrong thing and ruminate about it for days.
Researchers suspect that this is due to differences in the ability to develop resilience, or psychological resistance. This is influenced not only by personality and a positive attitude to life, but also by environmental experiences and genes.
The basics are developed from childhood, writes author Christina Berndt. But resilience can also be trained in adulthood.
But how can you reduce stress? There is no perfect strategy. For some it helps to be more mindful in everyday life, for others to relax with yoga, and for others to exercise more.
The double burden of family and job should be approached differently than conflicts with your partner or fears about your job. The right coping strategy (to cope with a difficult situation) depends on many factors: What type of stress am I? How long does the stress last? Can I change the situation at all? Which areas of life are affected? There are also strategies that produce additional stress.
This includes, for example, the excessive acting out of negative feelings, numbing with alcohol and medication or denial and suppression.
In the case of acute stress: do not react out of emotion, but first take a deep breath, count to ten, come down, cool down. Now a few sober questions help to evaluate the situation. Sounds mundane, but it's effective.
Is there anything at all at stake for me? Will I remember this in a few years? If the situation can't be influenced or changed, try to embrace it: Yes, this is stress now. I'll try to make the best of it and rise to the challenge. We wish you every success in coping with stress.