Stress is Unavoidable and Cumulative

I think all therapists have a handful of themes they return to over and over. One of mine is “stress is cumulative.” Lots of people who seek help in offices like mine could list current stressors in their lives that would bring anyone to their knees. The other names people give to their problems–kids’ behavior, marital problems, depression, anxiety–are made worse by the pile-up of life events that have eroded the family’s ability to cope. In some ways, for nearly every problem, stress is part of the problem.

Some background:

English: Bust of Hans Selye Magyar: Komárom - ...
English: Bust of Hans Selye Magyar: Komárom – Selye János szobra a Tiszti pavilon udvarán Slovenčina: Komárno – socha Jánosa (Hansa) Selyeho vo dvore Dostojníckeho Pavilóna (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Has Selye was an endocrinologist in the middle of the last century, a prolific researcher who coined the term “stress” in the way that most of us use it today. He noticed that organisms (people and mice!) who had many demands on them seemed to have more problems, emotional, medical, and social. To describe this phenomenon, he borrowed a term from metallurgy. “Stress” is what happens to an object when forces press against it repeatedly. With enough stress, the substance will bend or break. Same with people. When many forces are pressing, we may bend or break too. Selye defined stress as “a nonspecific demand for change.” Translated into everyday language, stress is any new or repeated demand on our time, energy, or attention. He also noted there are good stressors like promotions, new friendships, or marriage. And there are bad stressors like not having enough money or a hole in the roof. He also noticed there are three states in the biology of stress responses: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. When we first experience a new stressor, our systems rev up to adapt, producing more physical and mental energy. After awhile, we settle down into the resistance stage, where we draw on our reserves to cope. When our reserves are depleted, we get burned out, or exhausted. This sounds dire, but the good life is about growth and change. So there is no getting out of new demands. Stress is unavoidable.

Not long after Seyle’s initial research, two physicians, Holmes and Rahe, noticed that patients were more likely to get sick after they had experienced stressful events in life. They came up with a list of stressful life events, weighted for how much impact they seemed to have on people: from “death of a spouse” (100) to “revision of personal habits” (24) to “Christmas” (11). They called the list the “Holmes-Rahe Stressful Life Events Scale” (of course). The more points you get in a year, the more likely you are to get sick. Stress is cumulative.

More to Come:

I started this post three weeks ago, but kept thinking of more I wanted to put in. Soon, it was way part internet-attention-span length. A web designer I knew from Mercer said, “Never put anything you want people to read below the fold.” I got way past the fold. Way. So, there are two posts to come: One on Saying “No” and Making Time for Rest and Play, and another on Cultivating Self Compassion


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