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Ask a hundred attorneys what stress is and you will get a wide variety of answers many of them quite close to the accepted definition. Stress is the reaction of your mind and body to some stimulus. It is a simple concept in its initial view but vastly complex in the exploration of the cause and effect. It would be wonderfully simple if a standard stimulus caused an exact standard reaction in all of us. This is just not the case. A single event, such a death of a loved one or birth of a baby, will have a different response in each person. Physical responses are equally different. A cut, blow, push, kiss, or other physical contact with the body will be treated differently by each person experiencing it.
A certain amount of stress is needed to function and to stay alive. Muscles are stressed as they operate to keep the body standing or sitting. Various stresses are experienced by eating, walking, talking, and all other activities in life. These are mostly the positive and useful and necessary types of stress.
Other types of stress and higher stress levels can be damaging to you in many ways. The exact point at which stress goes from positive to negative is not always clear and differs not only from person to person but from situation to situation in the same person.
The negative side of stress is always present and gets the most attention, but positive stress can have similar physiological effects on your body. Sudden joy can be very stressful and will cause a stress response from your system just as sudden grief will. Stress is normal and is part of being alive. A total lack of stress would mean the end of the ability to sustain life.
A stressor is something that causes stress. This can be anything that produces the response of stress within your body. It might be danger or perceived danger which will cause fear. It might be public embarrassment, physical injury, heat, cold, or overwork. It can be the normal activities that you experience every day such as exercise, getting dressed, having a conversation, or driving a car. Stress is a body's response to stressors.
The normal stress response to everyday stressors creates a balance which keeps the body running at a healthy pace. This balance is threatened when the stressors become too strong to handle the body's normal ability to handle them or when the body's systems become so weak they cannot cope with even ordinary stressors.
When the stressors are too strong, the stress level climbs to a level the body cannot handle and the body goes into distress. Distress is a state that the body cannot tolerate for long, and it reacts by starting to shut down.
For example, a man becomes so frightened that he faints or loses consciousness. The fear stressor was so strong that it overwhelmed his body's ability to cope with it other than to partially shut down or faint.
A chronic condition of distress will, over time, wear out the body's defenses and can eventually cause severe illness or even death. A weak organ, such as a heart or liver, can be greatly affected by chronic distress. Nearly every disease we suffer, in some way, is affected by stress. Distress brings pressure upon every system of the body, to varying degrees, and causes systems to fail. Systems already in trouble can be made worse. Combinations of negative and positive stress can form together to create distress.
A young mother, for example, discovers that her child is missing. She immediately displays tension and anxiety over the possibly negative situation. As a search is mounted by authorities and friends, her stress level goes up and up. Each report of search parties not finding the child frightens her with the possibilities of injury or death of her child. She is desperate and nearly hysterical when suddenly her child is found and returned. She is overjoyed, but this additional stress, although positive, is added to her high stress level, which has not yet had a chance to subside. The result is that she faints. This is dramatic, but understandable. Distress was created by the combination of positive and negative stressors.
This can happen on a more extended basis when you are engaged in your profession, the law, a situation that causes wild swings in emotional response. You may very possibly be a person that experiences such extremes in response. Remember: being "stressed" is a natural condition of being alive. It is distress that is to be avoided in able to maintain a state of balance. The state of balance is called homeostasis and is what we should endeavor to maintain. Good mental and physical health is not possible without it. The body is a collection of systems and organs which must work together to maintain optimum functioning. Stress is a factor in the health of every part of the body. It causes changes in various systems and when the stress is sudden, the change in the stress level is also sudden.
Probably the most often discussed response to a sudden stressor, such as a strong physical threat, is the "fight or flight" response. Here your heart speeds up, and blood flow is increased, especially to your muscles and your brain. The various senses come to a higher state of alertness, and adrenaline is released into your bloodstream. Your muscles all tense up in preparation for some kind of action. Your body is preparing itself to either fight the attacking stressor or to flee from it.
In ancient times, these responses to stress were all too necessary to survive hostile elements such as large animal attacks or disputes with other humans. Today, we still have disputes with other humans. These disputes can be in war or person to person, but many have shifted to the boardroom or athletic field. The same reaction to a threat can be in vastly different circumstances, from an attack by a mugger to a highly adversarial court case.
The combinations of physical and mental stressors working together on your body can drive you out of homeostasis and into distress as easily as stressors all in one category or another. Worry and anxiety over financial problems together with a hard-played set or two of tennis might push someone into dangerous areas. A serious injury from a car crash with the addition of a death in the family could push another toward stress overload, or distress. An injury and an illness could be a problem with excess stress as well as perhaps a loss of a long-held job and marital or family problems.
The source of the stressor may not have the importance that the strength, combination with another stressor, or condition of your body does. The realization that a lingering illness, worry about a job, a minor injury, and sudden large bills can cause a dangerous combination is not always made. High stress levels can wear down and wear out your body, your resistance to disease, your mental and physical stamina.
The female attorney who quits work to stay home with her four children may do so to get rid of stress of practice, but may well find higher stress levels at home. This happened to many men in the 1980's when it became popular to try being a "house husband" and avoid the business rat race. Surprise! Many faced bigger stressors at home. A number of attorneys made an about face and went back to work.
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