“Stress, enemy or ally?” Dr Achotegui’s article on stress in “The Conversation”

“Stress, enemy or ally?” Dr Achotegui’s article on stress in “The Conversation”

Estrés enemigo o aliada | Dr. Joseba AchoteguiOur time has been called “the age of stress.” But what is stress? The term has been so successful and polysemic that it is often used in different senses.

One of its most recognised and used definitions indicates that it is “a particular relationship between the person and the environment, valued by the person as a situation that overwhelms them and endangers their well-being.”

In it, we can intuit the relevance of the evaluation that the person makes of the problematic situation that he has to face. If we also add the other factors that influence the origin of this stress, which we will analyse below, we will verify that it is also related to positive aspects. That is, we can take advantage of stress; it can help us.

What is stress, and why is it not always negative?

The very Greek origin of the word stress, stringere (tension, narrowing), already indicates the link between stress and problem situations. Stress would be understood as an attempt to adapt that requires effort, struggle. Not as an adaptation that we can do naturally and easily.

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Stress appears before problems and changes that we must face. Of course, it is important to understand that it is not the answer to the problem that affects us, but the change we have to make. We put in place the process to find the final answer that will allow us to solve the problem.

Stress is something intermediate between the problem and the response that we end up carrying out. So much so that it becomes an answer. However, this mediation or process can be long and complicated. This is really troublesome.

Stress is, therefore, the first response to a change that requires effort and that does not occur by itself. It does not have to be a negative thing: it is not a disease or dysfunction. It is a mechanism that evolution has selected to allow us to adapt to changes that require effort.

Acute stress is not the same as chronic stress

It would be necessary to differentiate between two main types of stress: acute and chronic. Faced with the first, evolution has selected a magnificent and adaptive strategy, also given in many animal species.

Think, for example, of a lion’s attack: the whole organism prepares to survive. Increase the heart rate; blood glucose; decreases sexuality; we turn pale since the blood flow is concentrated in the muscular system. In addition, digestion is paralysed, we want to urinate and defecate to lose weight, and there is not even a sensation of pain if we have an injury.

All these reactions of our body are in the service of being able to fight or run away. In short, to survive, reacting automatically, in an admirable way. After all, we are descended from those who overcame acute stress. Hence this excellent reaction.

In the face of chronic stress, however, things get complicated. Its origin is fundamentally psychosocial, typical of societies with complex roles (conflicts of affective relationship, status). Natural selection has not yet endowed us with such a brilliant response system as in the case of acute stress.

If not made correctly, the stress response can end up damaging the body. How? For example, the increase in glucocorticoids, which injure the hippocampus. On the other hand, it decreases immunity, favouring the origin of infections, cancer, and metabolism alteration, especially thyroid.

How to deal with chronic stress

To properly face chronic stress situations and turn them into experiences that, although complex, can help us mature and grow, it is crucial to consider certain behaviours.

  • Reworking well our expectations regarding the change or problem we are facing. If expectations are unrealistic, we will fail.
  • Have a solid social support network, have social capital. And, if necessary, ask for help from professionals. Accept that we are not omnipotent, know how to recognise our limitations.
  • Living the stressful situation as a challenge, as a challenge to overcome. Accept that living means facing changes and problems. Not living the chronic stress situation as a threat, as a misfortune that “has had to happen to me.”

Have an active adaptation attitude. You have to have the capacity to endure and at the same time be able to modify the obstacle, even if it involves confrontation.

For example, if we have someone in the next room who is constantly making noise and annoying, we can try to hold it, relax, calm down. But it is a better solution to go and tell them to stop making noise.

If we are faced with a toxic relationship, it is preferable to end it to endure suffering without exit. Better not a relationship than a bad relationship. Or, given the pandemic we are experiencing, it is better to acquire a proactive attitude.

  • Give meaning to suffering. This will depend on the worldview, mentality and ideology of each person. The truth is that we know that, for example, people with strong religious beliefs tolerate stress better.

In conclusion, stress is a challenging situation for the person, but, correctly approached, the response to it can become a life experience. An experience that enriches us and that we grow personally.

Article originally published on https://theconversation.com/el-estres-enemigo-o-aliado-168929