In today’s fast-moving and performance oriented society stress has become quite a trendy catch-phrase for high-powered executives and even something of a status symbol. It is a common topic of conversation and overuse of the term has rendered it a muddled concept. Over the years a variety of self-help and coping strategies have been offered by various experts, many of which are conflicting. Now in the 21st century, stress remains one of the least understood and yet most widely experienced afflictions.
A more formal definition of stress is that it is the state arising when the individual perceives that the demands placed on them exceed (or threaten to exceed) their capacity to cope, and therefore threaten their well-being. This state impacts us both physically and psychologically.
When in a threatening situation, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes heavier and we can almost feel the adrenaline pumping through our bodies. This is known as the stress response, or the “fight or flight” response, which is a complex psychophysiological arousal in response to demands from the environment. What essentially occurs, is that the systems that our bodies feel are necessary for short-term survival, are prioritized, while other systems, like the reproductive and immune systems, which are not vital, are shut down.
Psychologically, stress has the effect of changing the way we perceive the world: it affects our senses, memory, judgement and behaviour. What is interesting though, is that as well as these psychological consequences, stress also has psychological causes. Whether a situation is found to be threatening and to therefore trigger a stress response, is entirely dependent on the way the situation is perceived. Situations that some find highly stressful, others might find challenging, or even enjoyable. So stress is a vicious circle: as well as being caused by the feeling we can’t cope, it also causes us to feel that we can’t cope.
These feelings of helplessness and worthlessness, as well as constant fatigue, irritability and sleep disturbance, are also symptoms of depression, and the links between stress and depression are well-known. Stressful events, like a divorce, a bereavement, even a wedding can sometimes trigger depression in someone who had an underlying predisposition to the disorder, as can extended periods of stress, like an unpleasant working environment or caring for a dying loved one.
Another similarity between depression and stress, are the coping techniques that many people use to deal with them, which often compound the problem, like drinking and smoking more, abusing drugs, and popping pills. The costs of depression and stress to business are phenomenal, showing up mainly as a high staff turnover, an increase in sick leave, reduced work performance, poor time-keeping and more customer complaints. According to researchers for the British National Depression Campaign, stress and depression contribute to more than 155 million lost working days per year, while depression alone accounts for nearly 20 % of all sickness absence in the workplace. For employers, the financial implications of this can be severe. It is an employer's duty by law to ensure that their employees are not made ill by their work, and fortunately, reducing stress and recognising depression need not cost a lot of money. For more information, the Depression and Anxiety Support Group can be contacted on (011) 783-1474/6, Mondays to Fridays, from 8am to 7pm, and on Saturdays, from 8am to 5pm.
Stress and depression, as well as interfering in a person's ability to cope from day to day, can also lead to other physical ailments. We all know that stress can cause us to become more vulnerable to getting sick. Many studies have shown that we are more prone to catching flu, for example, during periods of stress, like exams or the end of the financial year, and this is explained in layman's terms, by the fact that we are run down or burnt out. In slightly more detail, what occurs is that, when stressed, hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, are released as a part of the stress response, to prepare us for "fight or flight". The problem is that they also impair the functioning of the immune system. In a sense, the immune system is shut down as it is not necessary for short-term survival, as mentioned earlier. This leaves the body vulnerable to certain viruses and bacteria.
The same has been shown for depression. Johannesburg psychologist, Colinda Linde explains: "The immunosuppressive effects of depression have been well documented. Some researchers propose that stress puts one in a bad mood, which in turn influences immune function negatively and makes one susceptible to illness. In addition it has been found that suppression of anger, which is implicated in the development of depression, is also a suppressor of immune function and subsequent development of illness."
Colinda Linde also warns: "The relationship between stress and illness is an important one with winter approaching, as there is increased risk of contracting the flu virus at this time. Those who are depressed and/or have had a bereavement in the past 18 months should also be careful to avoid stress, as their immune status may also be poor, therefore increasing the risk of illness."