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What is stress?

Stress, very simply, is a built-in condition. Humans are hard-wired to have a physical and psychological “stress” reaction when facing a perceived threat, whether it is real or not.

Specifically, whether caveman or suit, when the “fight or flight” response kicks in, the body reacts with the instant release of the cortisol and adrenaline hormones; these hormones keep the body and mind on standby, alert and ready for reaction to the threat. This reaction served as a useful, protective response when faced with primitive threats such as a lion attacking. However, it is essential to note that this response is outside of conscious control; the body will automatically trigger it.

Being stressed can serve as a useful motivator to perform, provided it is in the right context. As far back as 1908, researchers discovered that productivity drops off remarkably once stress reaches a mid to high level. And when productivity drops off, the bottom line suffers.

The specific and immediate cause of stress is called the stressor. From a physical standpoint, everybody reacts in a standard and predictable manner – we enter the “fight or flight” response. This automatic physiological process is known to have evolved in humans and animals to enable them to cope with sudden life-threatening emergencies – not the train being delayed or a red light when you are rushing to a meeting.

While the automatic physiological response of “fight or flight” was crucial in the survival of the species, today’s at work; we are fortunate that we rarely need to fight for our lives literally. However, we may need to retreat from a metaphorical predator – yes, they exist in the workplace. An appraisal meeting with your boss, having to give a presentation to others register in the autonomic nervous system as stress. Our automatic stress response has remained unchanged from way back when to today’s modern world.

Our psychological resilience is different to each of us. We all have different resilience levels to stress; chronic stress will eventually wear down even the strongest people. There is a physical process running the show inside us: continued stress can cause biochemical imbalances that weaken the immune system. Overall, stress that persists – is known to interfere with digestion and, more seriously, alter brain chemistry, create hormonal imbalances, increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, and negatively affect both metabolic and immune function. It is also essential to recognise that although stress itself is not a disease, it can worsen any number of already serious physical conditions and take a wrecking ball to sleep.

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