Stress-Producing Stress

Define “stress.”

Most people would define stress as an overall negative feeling. What kind of feeling, exactly? Stress might feel like:

anger

worry

sadness

being overwhelmed

despair

shock

exhaustion

pressure

busyness

irritation

fear

distraction

confusion

etc…

 

In other words, stress is an actual, definable emotion, not just a vague, amorphous catchall. The danger in always using the word “stress” rather than naming the actual feeling is that we lose the right to be okay with it.

 

The word “stress” was not used to describe a human emotional condition until around 1945 when it was first coined by a scientist, Hans Selye. Increasingly since then, people have tended to substitute “stress” for fear- and anxiety-producing emotions.

 

Today, “stress” is considered generally bad on all fronts and myriad articles are written weekly on how to avoid it, lessen it, and overcome it. When the body reaches its unique threshold of emotional intensity— this varies from person to person—some or all of the following may occur: adrenaline is released, the heart pumps harder, breathing comes faster, palms get sweaty, hands shake, and so on. Repeated and frequent bouts of such emotional intensity take a toll on the body, mind, and spirit and naturally we seek ways of escaping it.

 

But much of what we call stress is actually just a normal emotion that has a specific name. It is emotional arousal common to all human beings since time began, in both happy and sad or difficult circumstances.  Consider the feelings that surround having a new baby in the family, getting married, preparing for a long trip, or having friends or family visit. Any expected or unexpected disruption in routine causes elevated emotional arousal. These emotions, although often uncomfortable, can be honored and tolerated. Since these emotional reactions cannot be avoided, perhaps a healthier and more realistic way of experiencing them is to anticipate and normalize them. Otherwise we may be telling ourselves something that is both unduly frightening and untrue: “I can’t handle this!”

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