In Stress

This year will be stressful. It will be full of things that create stress on you mentally, physically and chemically, called stressors. Much of what will come at you this year will be completely out of your control. How that stress affects you though, whether it helps you grow or breaks you down, is something you have a great deal of influence over. You get to decide which challenges are obstacles in your life and which are opportunities.

The physiologist who introduced the term stress as it applies to living things (before that it was an engineering term) was Hans Selye. Through his research, writing and teaching we learned how the mind-body is affected by the three types of stressors: physical, chemical and mental.

Dr Selye discovered that some stressors hurt you and some help you. The type that hurts you, he called dis-stress. When a living thing experiences dis-stress it activates the fight/flight/fright pathways in your mind-body, activates defence physiology and creates dis-ease. If defence persists, then defence becomes decay and disease results.

The type of stressor that helps you is eu-stress. The experience of eu-stress activates growth and repair pathways. You can guess that these pathways lead to ease, health and vitality.

Interestingly, the difference between eu and dis-stress lies, not in the stressor, but in the context in which the person experiences them.

Tossing at 20kg weight to a rugby player is likely to be something their mind-body can adapt to, so it would be a eu-stress and help them build muscle. Tossing the same weight at a 90 year old might well be a dis-stress and hurt them.

In the same way, mental stressors can affect different people in very different ways. From the writing of Viktor Frankl and the research done in the field of positive psychology it’s becoming apparent that, even significantly ‘negative’ events, like death of a loved one that most people would experience as a dis-stress, can be reframed and become eu-stressors.

What seems to lie at the centre of this reframing and mental-emotional adaptation is meaning. If we can find meaning in our suffering, we transcend its negative effects and emerge stronger. In Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he found that people who survived the Nazi concentration camps were much more likely to have found a sense of meaning beyond their immediate pain and suffering.

It seems that whether this year is a threat or an opportunity for you, depends on the strength of your purpose in life, your search for meaning. So now that the year is underway get deeper than simple New Year’s resolutions. Dig into your reason for existence and start your search for meaning. Take on challenges on the way instead of allowing them to get in your way.

By Dr Greg Venning

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