The biology of stress has been studied extensively, and untold numbers of rats have been driven nuts in the process. But you don’t need to be a scientist or a rat to know that stress greatly effects your peace of mind and well-being.
Stress disrupts the balance in your life, putting a strain on you and those around you. It can and does make you sick, both physically and mentally. In the midst of plenty, it can make you miserable. As Aesop says in his Fables, “A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.”
We need to learn where the undesirable stress is coming from in our lives in order to take steps to manage it. The sources of stress may be broken down into two broad categories: that which comes from outside ourselves, and that which comes from within ourselves. These may be further divided into things we can control and things we can’t control.
Stress that comes from outside ourselves
Stress from outside easiest to identify
In our modern lives, stress from external sources are often out of our control, but they’re the easiest to identify. Some typical stressors of this sort are:
- Loud sounds, bright lights, pain
- Lack of control over environmental circumstances, such as food, housing, health, freedom or mobility
- Illness, both minor such as a cold or flu, or major, like cancer or heart disease
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Disabilities and the effects of aging
We may have some measure of control over other stressors coming from outside ourselves:
- Unhealthy living, such as eating and drinking too much, or staying up too late
- Work and study that is boring, unrewarding or excessively demanding
- Relationships with friends, family and others
- Life events like births and deaths, marriage and divorce
- Responsibilities such as money and unemployment
All these and many, many more affect us mentally, but they tend to have a greater effect on our bodies. We become tired and ill, continually sleepy, and prone to sickness. And once we become ill from the effects of stress, it’s harder to get well. Some doctors say that the stress that goes along with sickness is one of the major obstacles to getting well.
Stress that comes from within ourselves
Internal stress has great effects on well-being
Stress coming from within ourselves has an equal or greater effect on our mental and physical health and well-being as external sources of stress. It’s something that scientists and their rats don’t have a clue about!
There has been far less research on internal stress than external stress because 1) it’s far harder to study, and 2) most people don’t recognize that one can be stressed from the inside as much or more as from the outside.
We ignore our internal stressors
We often get so overwhelmed with external stress that we either ignore or don’t realize the stress that we are causing ourselves. And stress from the inside can keep going even when the stressors from the outside have been calmed. It makes us anxious, unhappy and depressed, and keeps us from enjoying life even when our external circumstances are peaceful and prosperous. We’ve all heard stories of miserable billionaires!
Psychological or emotional stress is hard to come to grips with; even if we know it’s there, we often can’t put a finger on it. It’s far easier to blame something external, like the stress of driving in daily traffic, than to really take a look within to see that the stress really comes from our reaction and attitude toward it.
Stress makes it hard to think
Stress affects the way we our brains function, making it difficult to think clearly and objectively. This is particularly true if stress has made you anxious or depressed. These conditions lead to thinking that you are less capable or weaker than you really are, or that the situation is worse than it is.
Stress distorts our thinking
These subtle distortions in thought are hard to identify. A person with a thought like “My condition is hopeless” may take for granted that the statement is true, since that is what they truly feel. But objectively we know that it is not true, that it’s just the depression and anxiety talking. People deny that their thinking is affected by their feelings, but exaggerated and self-defeating thoughts can get in the way of assessing the situation and improving it.
Unlike external stress, most sources of inner stress are under your control. Anxieties and Panic Disorder have one of the highest rates of treatment success among all the mental illnesses. A good psychological professional can help you recognize, dissipate and control these destructive inner stressors, not only for the short term, but for the rest of your life.
What do you think?
My own experience with stress
This post arises from what I have learned about the stressors in my own life. I have found that my internal stressors have as much or more influence on my well-being as external stressors. I really didn’t realize this until I became so ill that I had to retire; the external stresses were removed, and all the internal stressors were able to rear their ugly heads. I discovered that these were actually exerting more pressure on me than the external stressors!
What are the stressors in your life? Are they external or internal, or both?
How do you feel about the “balance” between your internal and external stressors?
As always, your comments are welcome!
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Last revised January 1. 2009