GETTING TO KNOW STRESS
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
– Wordsworth, Miscellaneous Sonnets
Stress has been defined as the interaction between the coping skills of the individual and the demands of his or her environment. In other words, it’s how we react to what is happening around and within us, depending on our ability to deal with it.
Generally, when we refer to stress, we’re talking about the stressors in our lives – the events, often harmful or unpleasant, which put extra demands on our ability to cope. We see stress as a synonym for distress, and when we say we’re under stress we’re referring to the symptoms of our distress – fatigue, insomnia, difficulty in concentrating, headaches, depression and so on. We may feel overwhelmed, unable to cope with what is happening or what we imagine might happen, uncertain about the situation.
WHAT IS STRESS?
The word “stress” has become an all-too-familiar part of our modern vocabulary. We’ve only to turn on the radio, flip open a magazine or switch on the TV to hear about stress and its adverse effects on our work, our health and our personal relationships. It’s become the bugaboo of the 21st century, and there would seem to be no escaping it.
There exists, in fact, a multibillion-dollar industry aimed at eliminating stress from our lives, or helping us deal with its effects. In North America alone, more than 100 million prescriptions for mood elevators are written each year. There are biofeedback machines to train us to relax, anti-stress courses and seminars for working men and women, and gimmicks and gadgets of every description. And yet, with all this high-priced advice bombarding us from every direction, for many of us, the situation seems to be getting worse.
Stress can be both good and bad, helpful and destructive. Once recognized, stress can be controlled and channeled in positive, life-enhancing directions. First, though, we must understand the nature of stress and how it works in our lives.
STRESS IN THE MODERN ERA
One hundred years ago, the highest social prestige was attached to people and institutions that had nothing whatever to do with industry or trade. The English country gentleman, for example, was a respected figure among his neighbours, precisely because he didn’t have to work. He had comfort, social position and a great deal of personal leisure time.
The idea of taking on a profession, for someone who didn’t need the money, was considered eccentric at best, and often frowned upon. If a man had ambition, he could satisfy it in politics, the military or even the Church. He could afford to be scornful of the middle-classes and their desire to “better themselves”, and concentrate his energies on his estate, his family life and his peer group.
Today, of course, all that has changed. In our fast-paced society, “busy” is the status symbol. (Look around at the number of people attached to their cell phones, connected through social media while in their cars or grabbing a mid-morning coffee.) Leisure time – what there is of it – has become serious business. Although the number of paid working hours per week is declining and technology continues to advance at an unprecedented pace, most of us have less free time than our parents did.
Women are a good example of this trend. Most of them work far longer hours than their grandmothers may have, because they work outside the home as well as taking care of their families. All of this is at the expense of sleep, personal care and free time.
Students aren’t exempt from the rigors of stress. In these days of intense competition for good grades, the schools themselves teach children at a very young age to measure themselves in terms of tests, grades and how they rate with their peer group. Charles Reich, the author of The Greening of America, makes the claim that today’s student is actually motivated by external values: “He often seems to keep pushing beyond rational limits,” he writes. “The exterior goals consume the inner ones, and he has little time left for more intimate personal values.”
As society progresses, so do our expectations. We want more from life and we want it faster. Faster food, quicker weight loss, instant pain relief. And we expect more of ourselves. We take adult education courses and management training courses and positive parenting courses, always trying to be one step ahead of the next person, pushing ourselves to be better and better.
We’re proud of our achievements, and we should be – we should feel good about our lives. And yet, instead of reaping the benefits of the good life, many of us feel we are on a treadmill. We’re afraid if we don’t stop we won’t get going again, that if we look too closely at who we are, we may not like what we see. We miss the overall picture and our own very important and unique place in it.