You may have heard it said that stress is always an inside job. Even when pressure is coming at us from outside circumstances, it is our response to those pressures that generates felt stress. If we are not able to respond in a healthy way to stress, our body experiences it as fear, anxiety, and duress. Fear and uncertainty, when unchecked, can spread like wildfire and over time can do real damage to our bodies and our brains.
Stress is part of a natural behavior pattern where, when a stressful event occurs, a person reacts to it by moving towards a resolution of tension, and then the person returns to a normal relaxed state. At times, stress can be very useful. Stress can help us reach higher levels of performance, creativity, and production. It can be just the thing needed to push us to reach a goal or accomplish a task. In fact, none of us reach our peak performance in anything without some level of stress. When stress is excessive or chronic, however, our ability to match responses to the stress can get overwhelmed and negative psychological and physical symptoms are the result.
The effects of stress are well-known as both physical and mental. Physically, stress felt on a short-term basis causes things like problems with digestion and sleep. Chronic stress felt over time, however, causes greater problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, problems with the immune system, ulcers, strokes, exhaustion, and insomnia. Mentally, the pressure can result in anxiety, depression, lack of concentration, and anger management problems.
These TED-Ed videos show the effects of stress on our brains and our bodies.
Many studies have been done to examine the relationship between stress and control. Studies show that if we are able to respond with a sense of control and a belief that we are capable of dealing with the situation, stress does little damage. Overwhelmingly, the proof comes back that people experience fewer damaging effects of stress if they have some sense of real or perceived control over the situation. In these studies, both humans and animals experience more harmful negative effects from stress if they feel they are helpless to do anything about it. Even when the tests put the same amount of stress on all subjects, the symptoms of the stress are much less harmful for the subjects who have even a small sense of control over the situation, even if they choose not to exercise that control. Just to feel a sense of it is enough to help.
This is very good news to anyone looking for techniques to manage stress. The first thing to realize is that we all have some control over a stressful environment. None of us is completely helpless. We can all exercise some control over our time and everyone has the ability to control their thoughts (and by those, their feelings). We can also choose to separate ourselves from situations that bring us chronic stress, or we can choose to cope in healthy ways using exercise or meditation. Stress may still be a challenge, even for those who realize this, but as a person takes more control over a situation, the effects of stress are lessened.