Stress… What is it?

April 17, 2018

Stress; A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. We not only hear it every day, we experience it. It is a part of life and it is only human to experience stress, but what really is stress? Why does stress exist? Is it dangerous? This is similar to asking for example, why humans have eyes, because the concept of stress is so deeply woven into the fabrics of our society and into the very idea of humanity. Stress is a motivator, stress is an evolutionary signal, and stress can be very dangerous.


Many emotions are motivators in life, one of which is stress. Anger, love, happiness and hatred are other examples because these feelings motivate people to do or not to do things. It can be assumed that most people have experienced stress in their life to some degree. Many people naturally associate stress with a negative connotation, however in small doses stress is beneficial and can help one stay focused, work more efficiently, and keeps one alert. One might think of stress like a very intense fuel for a sensitive engine. In small doses the fuel propels the engine and motivates the vehicle to move forward; however, if the engine is overwhelmed by too much of the fuel, it will fail and explode. This is a metaphor for stress because the mind is a sensitive machine and can be easily overwhelmed by stress; yet, in the correct amounts stress is also an efficient motivator.


Stress has most likely been woven into the fabrics of humanity prehistorically. Our Neanderthal ancestors lived much more dangerous lives than we did. Being hunters and gatherers, these people needed to be constantly finding a source for warmth, shelter, food, and water in order to survive. Without a sense of urgency or anything to push them to find these things faster a certain individual may not perform resulting in their death. This is a clear example of natural selection favoring a certain trait. We most likely experience stress today because in the times of our ancient ancestors individuals who perceived stress were much more likely to survive, then through the process of natural selection humanity evolved as a whole until we all perceived stress as well. To many today stress seems like an unnecessary burden, but to our predecessors it was quite advantageous.


Although the previous claims may make one think that stress is truly an all around positive advantage, that is not entirely true. Like many things in life too much is dangerous and can have very serious results. It is likely that many can recall the feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place, metaphorically speaking, or the impending anxiousness of an approaching deadline. These are all situations that may induce stress in the subject, yet when stress begins to result in many side effects other than increased performance it becomes clear that there is an issue. “The burden of chronic stress and accompanying changes in personal behaviors (smoking, eating too much, drinking, poor quality sleep; otherwise referred to as “lifestyle”) is called allostatic overload” (McEwen). Alcoholism, drug abuse, etc., all things that may lead to self abuse or even suicide, are all results of stress and in turn allostatic overload. Stress may be a positive factor for urgent situations in life, but it is safe to agree that the point of allostatic overload is a line that society needs to work towards to prevent in it’s members. In short, stress can be very, very dangerous.






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