The Need for Stress
The World Health Organisation refers to stress as the ‘Health Epidemic of the 21st Century’ and predicts that by 2020 five of the top diseases world-wide will be stress related. This translates to us all having a one-in-four chance of developing a stress related illness in our lifetime.
But whether we love it or hate it, we all need stress in our lives. The key is in keeping it manageable. There is a direct relationship between the amount of stress we experience and our performance; with too little stress and we can be too laid back and under-perform, with too much stress we can become overwhelmed and risk illness and burnout. Get it right and we thrive.
Each of us has our own ‘optimum’ level of stress where the level of pressure we come under activates us and we perform to the best of our ability. This is called being ‘in the zone’, like the athlete before a race or ourselves before a deadline or performance. When I started to work in this area over 20 years ago, stress wasn’t considered that harmful and instead looked on as something that everyone experienced and just needed to get on with, lean in, pull up the socks and so on.
We now have firm evidence of the link between stress and mental illness. It is known to be related to anxiety and panic, fatigue and burnout, mood disorders and suicide. Even the more genetic or the inherited types of mental illness such as Bipolar Mood Disorder and Schizophrenia can be precipitated and aggravated by stress.
There are links between stress and physical illness, particularly cardiac illness, high blood pressure, heart attacks, obesity, gastro-intestinal illness, inflammatory disorders of the bowel, joints and skin. Even some cancers may be aggravated by stress. Recently, it has been linked to premature ageing and brain shrinkage. Stress is also linked to increased alcohol intake, other substance use and smoking as well as the potential for accidents and these bring their own health risks.
We can inherit a vulnerability to stress e.g. some people are ‘born worriers’ and can experience stress easier than others but the biology / genetics is a small part overall.
A lot of stress is very individual, the way we think or cope, our resilience levels, our approach to life (optimism versus pessimism), the environment we live in, the pressures we come under, our ability to cope with adversity and change, our life-style habits (nutrition, exercise, interests, alcohol use), the supports around us, our relationships and our general health and finances.
The earlier one identifies the problem the easier it is to reverse and prevent. The focus behind stress management is prevention because all the illnesses outlined above including stress-related ageing are preventable and reversible if managed early. Sleep difficulties, low energy, fatigue, lack of enjoyment, impaired decision making and concentration problems along with irritability are often the first signs. Many describe it as not feeling as ‘sharp’ or feeling overwhelmed, anxious, fearful or worried.
Professor Abbie Lane