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The Shorthand of Stress

It seems to me that we could do worse than take some time to consider in a little

more detail what has become a rather overused word - stress.

How often do we hear that somebody is ‘a bit stressed’? So often, I suggest, that we

take for granted what they mean by it and that the person giving the answer expects

us to. In this respect, the word and, by implication, the concept, has come to be

accepted and used as a kind of shorthand. What if we were to follow up with a

further, slightly more challenging question; ‘What do you mean by that?’ It’s a

reasonable enough question to ask, but I’m not sure that the answer would make it

any clearer.

In generally accepted terms, stress is a feeling of strain, anxiety or pressure. It can be

related to the environment or external circumstances but is often caused by internal

feelings of anxiety or discomfort which individuals experience and describe as

‘stressful’. When we don’t believe our resources are enough to deal with what the

circumstances demand, we can feel threatened: this, in turn, can cause us to fear

that we can’t cope. We will then describe that feeling of fear as stress.

Some of the words or phrases that have become synonymous with stress - anxiety,

not coping very well, under too much pressure, overloaded - all have negative

connotations and are probably meant to. When somebody says they’re ‘stressed’

it’s both unlikely and unusual that they mean to convey a positive experience.

Of course, it’s true that excessive stress can be harmful, increasing the risk of

strokes, heart attacks, ulcers and mental illnesses like depression for example. Most

of us acknowledge that very frightening and debilitating panic attacks are a physical

manifestation of psychological stress. There’s no doubt that such situations need to

be taken very seriously and addressed with some urgency.

It is also true, however, that some ‘stress’ - positive stress - is desirable, beneficial

and healthy. It produces adrenalin and enhances performance and motivation.

When we’re faced with a challenging situation and immediately feel those familiar

feelings taking us over, what if we first consider the possibility that what we’re

programmed to interpret as anxiety just might not be stress at all. What if it’s

excitement instead?

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