Shri Ramachandran, 48, is a Joint Secretary in the Department of Education in a State Government. He is an overactive, high-strung, dynamic and extremely responsible officer- an achiever in the true sense of the word. He is fond of good food, cannot spare any time for any exercise and is consequently about 18kg overweight. These days, he is tense and irritable. The paper-mills in the country are closed down due to strike and there is acute paper shortage in the State. The schools, colleges and the universities are going to open in about three months’ time, but there is no paper available in the market. How will thousands of school going children commence their studies? Shri Ramachandran has been entrusted with the responsibility of tackling this problem by the Chief Secretary and he has accepted the challenge but no solution appears to be coming through. Fear of failure is haunting him. “If I cannot solve this problem”, Shri Ramachandran thinks, “I will fall in the eyes of my superiors…… For once I will fail to perform the task entrusted to me. It has never happened before.” He works day and night, thinking and worrying, snaps at his wife, snubs the children, but does not share his mental agony and torture with anyone. Meanwhile, he develops some pain in his chest. He ignores it. The pain persists. He chews too many anti-flatulent tablets and forgets it. Two days later, the pain shoots up suddenly and radiates to his right arm. There is a choking feeling and cold sweat appears on his forehead. He has just suffered a heart attack. With timely medical aid, he survives the attack, but is laid in bed for six weeks. The doctors discover that his blood pressure is high and so is the level of cholesterol. In addition to the medicines, he is advised to control his diet so as to reduce his weight immediately, bring the level of cholesterol and the blood pressure down and is advised to take a short morning walk and increase it gradually.
The case cited above is not unique. We all have come across such people in our day-to-day life. Constant stress combined with an unholistic living pattern is the biggest bane of the modern life. Stress, according to some sources, is the single number one killer of the twentieth century.
What is Stress?
Dr. Hans Selye, a world known authority on stress has defined stress as the “non-specific response of the body to any demands made on it.” To understand this definition, we must understand the meaning of the words ‘demands’ and ‘non-specific response’.
What are Demands?
Demands on a body can be of different types. These can be physical, mental, psychological or even biological. Accordingly, overload of work, too many deadlines, a demanding boss, a non-performing junior, a competitive peer, excessive touring, quarrel with the spouse, an attack of influenza or anything may act as a DEMAND on the body and this can be a source of stress. These demands or stressors are invariably present in the environment whether it is the place of work, the social set-up or the family circumstances.
How Stress is Generated?
When the individual psyche reacts with these stressors in the environment, stress is generated. It is not only the existence of a stressor or demand in the environment, but also how one perceives it that determines the degree of stress generated in an individual in a given situation. This would explain why the level of stress varies in different individuals in more or less identical circumstances. How one perceives stress in a given situation depends to a great extent on one’s judgement of threat in it and the degree of this perceived threat depends upon one’s expectations from self and others, perception of others, others’ perceived perception about self and one’s own aspirations. The degree of stress also depends upon one’s past experience under similar circumstances, his/her individual enduring traits and situational components, especially current needs and activation level. Thus, stress is the non-specific response of an individual, which may vary from person to person and from place to place. Even a slight change or variation in these two components, i.e., the environment and the individual psyche, will affect the response of the person. Hence, the variation in the level and intensity of stress in different circumstances.
How does the Body Respond in a Stress Situation?
How does the body respond when it meets a threat? According to Cannon, the response invariably, is either ‘Fight or Flight.’ As living beings live in a constant state of stress, the nature has provided an inbuilt defence mechanism in the body, which gets activated as soon as one perceives threat in a particular situation. The most primitive response which can still be seen in the animal-world is ‘Fight or Flight.’ When an animal perceives threat, it either fights with the enemy or it flees from the situation. For this, the nature ensures that extra energy is generated in the body to enable it to save itself from the threat, gravity of which is judged by a part of the brain called hypothalamus. The brain accordingly signals the autonomic nervous system, which in turn activates the endocrine glands. As a result of this, certain hormones are instantly secreted into the body. Consequently, the eyes widen so that the animal can see better; the heart beats faster and the blood pressure goes up so that more blood is pumped into the system to meet the need of the hour; the breathing becomes quick to enable the lungs to absorb more oxygen in the blood; hunger dies off so that energy is conserved and used for survival purposes and muscles tone up and burn more glucose. All this is nature’s system of ensuring that the energy of the body is diverted into one single channel, i.e., protecting the body from the onslaught of the enemy threat – real or perceived. When the animal uses up this energy either in fighting or fleeing, these hormones are neutralised and the body returns to normal.
The Executive of today can resort to neither fight nor flight. Although his initial reaction to threat would still be that of ‘Fight or Flight’ only, circumstances compel him to maintain a cool demeanour even if he is seething with rage inside. It is under these circumstances, when he is exposed to stress stimuli on an ongoing basis and stress hormones are pumped into the system without providing a proper outlet by means of physical activity that some distortions in the defence mechanism of the body take place. The eyes, which constantly widen to see better, cause headache and visual strain. The lungs breathe rapidly so that more oxygen is supplied to blood, but may lead to hyper-ventilation under stress. Similarly, heart beats faster and the blood pressure goes up so as to supply more blood to various parts of the body, but this may result into palpitation of heart, a heart attack or a stroke. While the nature is preparing the person for ‘Fight or Flight,’ the blood starts clotting quickly so that the bleeding stops if the animal is injured in the process. In its distorted form, this may cause a clot to form in the blood, which may lead to coronary thrombosis. Similarly, muscles in the system also tone up to facilitate easy movement of the body, but may go into spasms and may cause tension aches and pains in the body. When the heart muscles are affected thus, this may cause angina pectoris. In order to conserve energy for ‘Fighting or Fleeing’, the nature also switches off the digestive system. This is why the person loses his appetite and the saliva in the mouth dries up when he is under a stressful situation. When the digestive system is affected, stomach-aches, flatulence, hyperacidity and duodenal ulcers follow. Let it be clear here that this reaction is nature’s system of ensuring the person against the perceived threat, but the distortions take place because the extra energy generated for the purpose of ‘Fight or Flight’, is not neutralised by any such physical activity.
Do Emotions Affect the Level of Stress?
As the genesis of stress being in one’s mind, which helps in the judgement of threat in a situation, emotions play a very vital role in generating stress and activating the endocrine glands which produce stress hormones in the body. When one has positive emotions like love, tenderness, hope, joy, courage and equanimity, the system is stimulated just to the right extent and generates only that quantity of hormones which is essential for protecting the body against the external threats in day-to-day life. But the negative emotions like anger, hatred, rage, frustrations, failures, rejection, disappointment, aggressiveness etc. overstimulate the system to prepare it for a stress situation and the protectors of the system eventually become its destroyers. This is why exposure to excessively strenuous situations when accompanied with positive and healthy feelings may not lead to any side-effects, whereas a much lesser degree of strain accompanied with negative feelings may be extremely harmful to the system.
Is Stress always Bad?
Despite all the bad effects of stress o the human system, stress is a force to reckon with. It can be easily compared to electricity. Just as less flow of current is ineffective, lack of stress in the life will make it boring, monotonous and insipid. Conversely, an excessive flow of electric current will destroy the system and excessive stress in a human body will make him ineffective, unproductive and sick emotionally as well as physically. Stress is a bad master but a good servant. In right measures, it is a dynamic force and a motivating factor—a potent source of change and harbinger of progress in the society. What is, therefore, needed is not avoidance of stress but its proper understanding and management.
(Published in State Bank of India Monthly Review, September 1985 Issue)