The Stress Factor


‘Stress is not all bad. It can motivate and create self-confidence. The body’s true enemy is constant haste.’ (Christiaan Barnard, MD.)

In today’s fast-paced world, our increasingly complex and fast-paced lives can sometimes appear to be out of control. We sometimes feel pulled in so many directions at once and are constantly trying to make sense of life’s changing profile and the demands that it makes on us. It’s no wonder we frequently hear the phrase, ‘I’m stressed!’

Stately, a facilitator who runs the CALM programme, which aims to alleviate stress, says this: ‘Much of our lives are subject to “rainbow chasing”; we go to bed, but not sleep; eat food, but not to satisfy our appetites; take medicine, but do not improve our health; live in beautiful houses which are not happy homes; and buy luxuries which do not bring us contentment.’ He further states, ‘Most people are now pray to the tensions of living in one place, working in another and taking leisure in a third.’

What is stress?
Stress is the body’s natural response – psychologically and physiologically – to events, both positive and negative, that upset our personal balance in some way. These are called stressors and they force us to adjust to change in our lives.

These stressors are highly individual but fall into three broad categories: pressures, frustrations and conflicts. If these stressors involve central aspects of your life, or persist for extended periods of time, they are more likely to result in severe distress and the distribution of your daily functioning, resulting in negative physical and emotional outcomes.

Recognising the signs
How does stress manifest itself? In a ‘normal’ stress response the physical effects of stress can be lifesaving. This is the ‘flight or fight’ response we have when experiencing fear of threat. It involved the body releasing a rush of adrenaline, which gives us the impetus we need to fight the threat or run away from it. This is the body’s emergency response, during which changes occur in the cardiovascular and metabolic system, increasing the pulse rate, breathing, blood pressure and sugar levels, while quickly diverting blood to vital organs such as the lungs, heart and muscles.

When subjected to ongoing stress, the body repeatedly instigates the ‘flight or fight’ response and we experience some of these symptoms.

Physical symptoms: aches and pains • breathlessness • menstrual changes • chest pain • palpitations • constipation • diarrhoea • headaches • indigestion • muscle twitches • nausea • recurrent illnesses/allergies • skin conditions • sleep problems • tiredness • weight loss or gain.

Behavioural symptoms: accident-proneness • sleeping pattern change • declining work performance • increased alcohol/tobacco use • restlessness • loss of appetite and/or loss of libido • overeating or the opposite • overreacting to issues • poor time management • poor judgement • withdrawal from family and friends.

Emotional symptoms: anger • anxiety • decrease in self-esteem • helplessness • guilt and shame • feeling out of control • increasing cynicism • lack of enthusiasm • mood swings • poor concentration • tension.

Psychological symptoms/recurrent negative thoughts and expressions: ‘I can’t cope’ • ‘I don’t know what to do’ • ‘I keep forgetting things’ • I’m a failure’ • ‘I should be able to cope’ • ‘Nobody understands’ • ‘What’s the point?’ • ‘Why is everyone getting at me?’

It is important for us to recognise what stresses us and to become aware of our unique set of symptoms. This will help us to detect when we are under stress and take action to reduce its negative effect on us.

We should also bear in mind that a certain amount of positively oriented stress is useful and will increase our creativity and help us achieve more.

Life events
Numerous studies point to the fact that a series of significant life-change events occurring over a short period of time is more likely to induce stress.

Two American psychologists, Holmes and Rahe, created a scale of 43 life events considered to be stressful. They indicate that if you experience two or more of these within a 12-month period, you have a greater risk of suffering from stress.1

According to the scale, the top ten most stressful life events are those listed below:
Death of partner • divorce • separation from a partner • imprisonment • death of a close family member • personal illness or injury • marriage • dismissal from work • change of job • retirement.

Achieving life balance
Having a good life balance means looking after our physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being. Rest is an essential part of this. Our culture is result-driven – fuelled by commerce and industry’s obsession with productivity and competitiveness. We are constantly being pushed to perform beyond our boundaries.

Perhaps your life is bursting at the seams with activity and you are finding it hard to juggle your work demands and family commitments, while still trying to find time for yourself. Take time to pause or slow down busy treadmill of life – perhaps the following will help you reach that objective:

Combating stress
Recognise when stress starts becoming destructive: but remember that some stress is necessary to motivate or inspire productivity.

  • Recognise symptoms early. Too much stress (pressure that continues for too long and leaves you feeling out of control) can be harmful.
  • Identify the cause, as it helps you to work through the pressure.
  • Write down, in order of priority, what stresses you and tackle each item individually.
  • Talk to a friend or counsellor – unloading helps.
  • Accept what cannot be changed; it brings some relief.
  • Try to avoid having too many life-change events in the course of a 12-month period.
  • Let go of resentment – it’s toxic to the mind and induces stress.
  • Take time for rest and relaxation; it rejuvenates.
  • Avoid junk food; it can aggravate stress symptoms.
  • Maintain regular exercise to burn excess adrenaline.
  • Nurture your spiritual well-being. Spiritual health heals emotions.


1 Holmes and Rahe (1967): ‘The social readjustment rating scale’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 11: 213-18

Taken with permission from Focus magazine Volume 10, No. 1


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