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Updated 19 April 2013

What exactly is stress?

Stress is the physiological, psychological, emotional and behavioural response of a person seeking to adapt and adjust to internal and external pressures or demands.

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Stress is the physiological, psychological, emotional and behavioural response of a person seeking to adapt and adjust to internal and external pressures or demands. It is basically a physical survival response leading to a ‘flight-or-fight’ reaction. All living organisms - from plants, to animals, to humans - have a stress response. That’s why certain species have survived to this day.

Stress is not a condition made up in the 20th century. Stress is powerful because it’s been around so long. It is our stress reaction that allowed us as a species to survive. The humans who responded best to the stress of survival, are the ones still around today.

Flight or fight?
The acute adaptation of the ‘flight-or-fight’ reaction was great for prehistoric man who fought mammoths, meteors and man-eating sabre-toothed tigers. Cavemen lived on the physiological edge. Today, we get the same unconscious reaction to stress. The response is engraved deep inside the old reptilian part of the brain we share with amphibians and reptiles.

Confronted with a real physical threat to survival, the response is great. But faced with psychological threats often created in our own minds, is not so great. We take all these frequent little (and often not so little), daily stresses and we internalise them. There they accumulate, stew and erupt in destructive volcanoes of ‘dis-ease’ after months or years of unrelieved stress buildup.

We need to learn how to use our ‘new’ brain or neo cortex (actually also a few billion years old) more effectively to help us manage our stress and use it appropriately.

While many people associate the term ‘stress’ with psychological stress, scientists and medical doctors use the term to describe anything that impairs the stability and balance (homeostasis) of the body.

 
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