How would you define stress? If we asked 10 people that question we’d get 12 different answers – none of them wrong.


However, most people would paint stress as a negative when it’s not. Not exclusively anyway. Stress is automatic, natural so it’s neither one nor the other. Behaviors, when stressed, maybe negative but they can also be positive.


Stress can be a vital ally – it helped our cavemen ancestors evolve.


Stress management is so-called because it’s not about ridding our bodies of stress – that’s impossible. It’s about managing. It’s about controlling our behaviors during times of stress and using stress for its benefits where we can. Wishing you could banish stress is like wishing you could banish sweat – we need the stress.


Stress – it’s personal


Stress is a deeply personal thing. Triggers, symptoms, and effects vary wildly from person to person, scenario to scenario. What sets us off is buried in our experiences, often dating back to childhood. We are each individual – a uniquely complex patchwork of experiences, emotions, personality, environment, and physicality so of course, our triggers are different. An event that’s natural for Person A might be kryptonite for Person B.


Some can handle armpits-in-the-face on public transport, others flee. Some thrive in the face of deadlines, others panic. Some fear performing in front of a crowd, others get a rush. These are all simple stress responses.


Most would deem panicking over a deadline as a negative response but it’s not: the panic is the instinctive reaction. The subsequent behavior is something else entirely. So if someone’s instinctive reaction is to panic over a deadline, it doesn’t mean they’ll flake out on their obligations. Their next move, in fact, might be better because of stress.


Stress – a decent definition


When I’m asked to define stress, I like the way endocrinologist Hans Selye – the man who developed the theory around stress – couched it. His definition of stress was multilayered but best captured as ‘a nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change’.


Selye didn’t discover stress but defined it for the modern era. For a thousand years, the Greeks used the term ‘suffering’ and the Chinese had ‘crisis’, but suffering and crisis are negatives. Selye shaped stress differently; acknowledging its functionality.


Selye documented that stress responses are present whether one receives good or bad news. Selye noted the increased activity in the glands as a bodily – and therefore natural – response to stress. He also developed the idea of two stress reservoirs – stress resistance and stress-energy.


This last idea is key. One can release resistance-based, negative behaviors when stressed: shutting down, pushing people away, isolating, oversleeping as a way to limit exposure to further unpleasantness. The public perception of stress tends to focus itself here: on people’s negative or resistance-based behaviors. But as per Selye, stress also invites us to access a reservoir of energy.


The positives


When your alarm clock goes off in the morning it causes a stress response, it’s why you wake up. Our stress hormones are designed to be highest in the morning, the cortisol levels in our body rise throughout the night, peak in the morning, and help us to wake. It’s a stress response rooted in the physiological make-up that primes us for a day of hunting and gathering.


Our ancestors really were glad about stress. When being chased by a wild animal, the increase in adrenaline helped them run faster and harder for longer to escape. To this day, stress can boost physical performance by some 20 or 30%.


In fact, if you’ve ever wondered why work submitted after an all-nighter wasn’t complete dreck, it’s because this same survival mode can heighten the brain just as it does the body. An energised, adrenaline-fuelled brain can concoct great things, short-term anyway.


In the world of sports, athletes have to tread a fine line between staying relaxed (but not too relaxed) alongside being game-ready (but not too jacked). That’s why the discipline of sports psychology exists – experts help athletes to calculate what level of stress is best for their performance before preparing the athlete’s mind and body to reach his or her optimum level without over or undercooking it.


So stress, as we’ve covered, is misunderstood. We see it as wholly negative when it’s not – we have a lot to thank stress for in humankind’s past and in each of our futures. When we paint a picture of stress, we tend to do two things 1) fail to see that it’s a natural bodily reaction and 2) view stress and those who suffer from it in a negative light.

If we’re to change the conversation about stress, and start to treat sufferers with more of the compassion they need, we need to start by getting to know it.