Good Stress, Bad Stress

“Since stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, everybody is always under some degree of stress.”—Dr. Hans Selye.

FOR a violinist to make music, the strings on his instrument must be taut—but only to a degree. If they are too tight, they will snap. But if the strings are too loose, they will produce no sound at all. The proper amount of tension lies somewhere between the two extremes.

It is similar with stress. Too much can be harmful, as we have already seen. But what about no stress at all? While the prospect might sound inviting, the fact is that you need stress—at least to a degree. For example, imagine that while crossing a street, you suddenly notice that a car is speeding toward you. It is stress that enables you to get out of harm’s way—quickly!

But stress is not only useful for emergencies. You also need stress to accomplish everyday tasks. Everybody is under some degree of stress all the time. ‘The only way to avoid stress is to die,’ says Dr. Hans Selye. He adds that the statement “he is under stress” is as meaningless as the expression “he is running a temperature.” “What we actually mean by such phrases,” says Selye, “is an excess of stress or of body temperature.” In this context recreation also involves stress, and so does sleep, since your heart must continue to beat and your lungs to function.

Three Kinds of Stress

Just as there are different degrees of stress, there are also different types.

Acute stress results from the strains of everyday life. Often, it involves unpleasant situations that need to be resolved. Since these are incidental and only temporary, the stress can usually be managed. Of course, there are some who jump from one crisis to another—indeed, chaos seems to be part of their personality. Even this level of acute stress can be brought under control. The sufferer may resist change, however, until he realizes the effect that his tumultuous life-style is having on him and on those around him.

While acute stress is temporary, chronic stress is long-term. The sufferer sees no way out of a stressful situation, be it the woes of poverty or the misery of a despised job—or no job. Chronic stress can also result from ongoing family problems. Caring for an infirm relative can bring on stress as well. Whatever the cause, chronic stress grinds away at its victim day after day, week after week, month after month. “The worst aspect of chronic stress is that people get used to it,” says one book on the subject. “People are immediately aware of acute stress because it’s new; they ignore chronic stress because it’s old, familiar, and, sometimes, almost comfortable.”

Traumatic stress is the impact of an overwhelming tragedy, such as rape, accident, or natural disaster. Many war veterans and concentration camp survivors suffer from this type of stress. Symptoms of traumatic stress may include vivid memories of the trauma, even years later, along with an increased sensitivity to minor events. Sometimes the sufferer is diagnosed with a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).—See box above.

Sensitized to Stress

Some say that the way we respond to stress in the present largely depends on how much and what kind of stress we have encountered in the past. They say that traumatic events can actually alter the brain’s chemical “wiring,” leaving a person much more sensitive to stress in the future. For example, in a study of 556 veterans of World War II, Dr. Lawrence Brass found that risk of stroke was eight times higher among those who had been prisoners of war than among those who had not—even 50 years after the initial trauma. “The stress of being a POW [prisoner of war] was so severe it changed the way these folks responded to stress in the future—it sensitized them.”

Stressful events experienced in childhood should not be underestimated, experts say, since these can have a substantial impact. “Most kids who suffer a trauma are not brought to the doctor,” says Dr. Jean King. “They get through the problem, go on with their lives, and wind up in our offices years later, suffering from depression or heart disease.” Consider, for example, the trauma of losing a parent. “Stress of that magnitude occurring when you are young may permanently rewire the brain’s circuitry,” says Dr. King, “leaving it less able to handle normal, everyday stress.”

Of course, how a person responds to stress can depend on a number of other factors as well, including his physical constitution and the resources available to help him cope with stressful events. Regardless of its cause, though, stress can be managed. Granted, this is not easy. Dr. Rachel Yehuda observes: “Telling someone who has been sensitized to stress to just relax is like telling an insomniac to just fall asleep.” Still, there is much that a person can do to reduce stress, as the following article will show.

[Box on page 7]

Job Stress—A “Global Phenomenon”

A United Nations report says: “Stress has become one of the most serious health issues of the 20th century.” Its presence in the workplace is palpable.

  • The number of stress claims made by government workers in Australia increased 90 percent in just a three-year period.
  • A survey in France revealed that 64 percent of nurses and 61 percent of teachers say that they are upset about the stressful environment in which they work.
  • Stress-related illnesses cost the United States an estimated $200 billion each year. It is reckoned that 75 to 85 percent of all industrial accidents are related to stress.
  • In country after country, women were found to suffer more from stress than men, likely because they juggle more duties between home and work.

Stress on the job certainly is, as the UN report calls it, a “global phenomenon.”

[Box on page 8]

PTSD—A Normal Reaction to an Abnormal Experience

‘Three months after our car smashup, I still couldn’t stop crying, or sleep through the night. Just leaving the house was terrifying.’—Louise.

LOUISE suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating malady characterized by recurring and intrusive recollections or dreams of a traumatic event. The person with PTSD may also have an exaggerated startle response. For example, mental-health expert Michael Davis tells of one Vietnam veteran who on the day of his wedding dived into the bushes at the sound of a car backfiring. “There should have been all kinds of signals in the environment that told him everything was okay,” says Davis. “It was 25 years later; he was in the United States, not Vietnam; . . . he was wearing a white tuxedo, not battle fatigues. But when that primordial stimulus came through, he ran for cover.”

Battlefield trauma is just one cause of PTSD. According to The Harvard Mental Health Letter, the disorder can result from any “event or series of events that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury or a threat to physical integrity. It might be a natural disaster, accident, or human action: flood, fire, earthquake, car crash, bombing, shooting, torture, kidnapping, assault, rape, or child abuse.” Simply witnessing a traumatic event or learning about it—perhaps through striking testimony or photographs—may induce symptoms of PTSD, especially if the people involved are family members or close friends.

Of course, people respond to trauma differently. “Most people who undergo a traumatic experience do not develop serious psychiatric symptoms, and even when there are symptoms, they do not necessarily take the form of PTSD,” explains The Harvard Mental Health Letter. What about those whose stress does lead to PTSD? In time, some are able to handle the feelings associated with the trauma and gain relief. Others continue to wrestle with memories of a traumatic event many years after it occurred.

Either way, those who suffer from PTSD—and those who want to help them—should remember that recovery requires patience. The Bible exhorts Christians to “speak consolingly to the depressed souls” and to “be long-suffering toward all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) For Louise, quoted at the outset, five months elapsed before she could once again get behind the steering wheel of a car. “Despite the strides I’ve made,” she stated four years after the accident, “driving will never be the pleasant experience it once was for me. It’s something I must do, so I do it. But I’ve come a long way since the helpless time following the accident.”

 

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