Stress, What is it?


Stress is sited as the cause of a wide range of health problems, costing businesses billions each year in lost work days and in compensation and pensions.  This does not capture the huge personal cost in anxiety, poor health and premature death. 

In order to deal with stress effectively either as an individual or as a manager ensuring the well being of your employees it is important to understand what stress is and the potential impact it can have. 


The first thing to understand is that stress in itself is not a bad thing.  It is how we react to stressful situations which, makes the difference.  One persons thrill and sense of excitement is another person’s anxiety and agony.


In this article we are going to consider ways for you to understand what stress is and the effect it has on your body.  Strategies for creating a life style which allows you to deal with your stress and ensure you have a great work life balance can be found on our website.


Stress can cause major health problems or in extreme cases be fatal. All of the information included is for your guidance only.  If you are experiencing any health problems brought on or made worse by stress or if you are feeling significantly unhappy it is extremely important that you seek professional health advice.  You should always seek the advice of your medical practitioner before any significant change in diet or exercise routine.





Stress is sited as the cause of over 500,000 days of absence a year in the UK alone.  It represents a huge cost in both economic and personal terms.  In order to deal with it we must first understand what it is and what causes it.


Below are definitions for the word “stress.”


“Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” (attributed to Richard S Lazarus)


“Stress (roughly the opposite of relaxation) is a medical term for a wide range of strong external stimuli, both physiological and psychological, which can cause a physiological response called the general adaptation syndrome, first described in 1936 by Hans Selye in the journal Nature “


“An emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to adverse external influences and capable of affecting physical health which can be characterized by increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, muscular tension, irritability and depression.”


There is no doubt that people generally respond well to a challenge particularly if they are involved in creating or something they find exciting.  Where those involved believe what they do, matters and they feel they have some ownership and control over their situation there is a positive payback even when working extremely hard over long hours.  We could debate whether the pressure involved in such situations constitutes stress.


Where stress is detrimental people are often in situations where they feel they have little control, feedback is non existent or overly negative, failure, humiliation, lack of support results in the person feeling that what they do has little value or they themselves are not valued.  Sustained exposure to such negative situations can have serious implications for the health and well being of the individual and ultimately for the organization as a whole.




We like to think of ourselves as well down the evolutionary path yet many of our responses harp back to a time when saber toothed tigers and wooly mammoths ranged the Earth.   When a caveman – or woman was threatened by danger the body.


When we perceive a threat or undergo any emotional or physical trauma our bodies release a hormone designed to help us run away from the danger or fight it.  This happens significant life threatening in situations.  The impact of the hormone can last long after the perceived threat has gone.


The result is:


An increase in heart rate and blood pressure.  The purpose of this is to send the oxygen and blood glucose directly to the cells in the major muscles to facilitate “flight or Fright”


Increased perspiring is designed to cool the muscles to keep them working efficiently.


Blood is transported away from the skin, this is to reduce blood loss if we were to sustain an injury


Hormones ensure the brain maintains focus on the threat – we become single minded


It also happens in any situation which we find frustrating or different.  When the threat is small we may be entirely unaware of the impact on us.


When the body reacts to ongoing stressful situations it can result in any combination of the following:


  • Feeling impatient, anxious, jumpy, irritable, over excited
  • Raised heart rate, pounding heart and in severe cases palpitations
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweaty palms
  • Feeling sick, indigestion
  • Finding it hard to think clearly
  • Difficulty in dealing with other people appropriately
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • More likely to make mistakes
  • Accident prone
  • Less able to take information from a range of sources resulting in impaired judgment
  • Poor self image
  • Poor self esteem


There are very few situations where the caveman response is useful.  In the vast majority of situations a calm, measured, sensitive approach based on clear rational thinking is not only more effective but far more healthy.


If we are exposed to negative stress over the long term, there is an increased and ongoing impact on the sympathetic nervous system.  This leads to a huge increase in the levels of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress related hormones. These can impact on our physical health compromising our immune system, allowing viral linked disorders varying from the common cold and herpes to AIDs and cancer to take hold.  Stress also impacts on the production of other hormones and brain transmitters, scientists believe that there are further activities involving enzyme systems and chemical messengers which are still relatively unknown which are affected by high levels of stress.  The links of ongoing stress to high blood pressure with the threat of heart attack or stroke, insomnia and fatigue are very well documented.  Stress has the potential to harm our mental well being causing problems such as depression.


Yet stress is a fact of life, it is impossible to eradicate it completely.  What we need to do, is keep our flight and fight response under control so we can be efficient and effective, avoid health related problems and burn out.

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