Understanding stress

In 2010, a third of working Swiss people reported that they often or very often felt stressed. Ten years earlier, in the year 2000, the figure had been significantly lower, at 27%. Stress is on the rise, so it's becoming more and more important to understand it and, wherever possible, overcome it.

In this context, it's worth asking what stress actually is, how it develops and whether it can be avoided. Stress develops whenever we are unable to cope with the demands placed on us or believe we are unable to cope with them.

The body's reaction to stress is natural

When we experience stress, the body's reaction is to make us ready to fight or take flight: The body makes as much energy and oxygen as possible available to enable us to do this. When we were still hunters and gatherers, this fight-or-flight response was essential to survival. Today, though, since we neither have to run away as fast as possible nor fight anybody, the energy made available by the body is not used. Over the long term this can lead to health problems.

People vary in how they assess the demands on them

While the body's reaction to stress is natural, and everyone experiences the same thing, different people make different assessments of the demands placed on them: The same demand will trigger a stress reaction in some people but not in others. On the one hand, there are external demands such as the requirements of work or looking after the children; on the other, there are a person's own wishes and needs.

If you are sure of being able to cope with a demand, a stress reaction is not triggered. However, if you don't have the resources (knowledge, training, health, family, friends, colleagues or money) required to cope with the demand, a physiological stress reaction occurs. Stress reactions can also take place when your view of the demands placed on you is distorted by excessive self-doubt or insecurity.

Sustained physiological stress reactions make you ill

Chronic stress reactions lead to physical problems:

  • Brain: Your memory, awareness and ability to learn and think are impaired.
  • Blood pressure: Constant stress reactions can lead to permanently raised blood pressure and an increased heart rate. This increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Muscular system: Constant muscular tension can result in back and neck pain.
  • Metabolism: The energy made available is generally not used and leads to raised blood sugar and blood fat levels and thus to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Immune system: Constant stress reactions weaken the immune system and increase susceptibility to infections.
  • Gastro-intestinal tract: Constantly reduced bowel activity leads to digestive disorders.
  • Behaviour: Stressed people are more likely to do things that represent a health risk. People suffering from stress smoke more, drink more alcohol and use more sedatives.

Dealing with the demands placed on us

If we are to stay healthy and avoid developing diseases, it is essential to be able to deal with stress successfully. It is worth being clear about what your goals and desires are and knowing how much strength and energy you can and want to invest in them. It may be necessary to postpone the achievement of a goal if you notice that you don't have the energy for it.

But because you can never totally avoid stress, you need proven stress management strategies. These can be learned. Why not take a course?