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Develop Mastery over Stress, Part 1

To begin, the authors distinguish between stress mastery and stress management. The latter refers to being able to survive stress while the former refers to thriving from stress. The authors define stress as anything that causes an individual to have to adjust. Therefore, stress is an inevitable part of life. One prominent stress researcher, Hans Selye, divided stress into two categories: eustress (positive) and distress (negative). In fact, optimal performance on a given task is often achieved with moderate levels of stress.

Mastery of stress comes about from finding your own optimal stress level. High levels of stress can have negative effects on an individual’s physical and psychological well-being as well as on his/her career. Prolonged periods of stress overload the immune system, making an individual susceptible to infectious disease and cancer. They can also lead to heart attacks, strokes, stomach ulcers, and headaches. Stress also contributes to the development of psychological problems: anxiety, depression, substance abuse, aggression, insomnia, and relationship problems.

At work, stress can lead to accidents, absenteeism, loss of jobs, and decreased productivity. All of these adverse effects arise from the fight or flight response to stress, a physiological mechanism. This response allows us to take immediate action to any stressor. The problem with this adaptive response is that individuals react not just to actual stressors but also to perceived stressors. As such, our days are filled with the constant onslaught of stressors. It is rare that our bodies have the opportunity to return to a state of homeostasis (balance).

The authors describe a phenomenon called stress sensitization, in which an individual becomes acutely sensitive to even the slightest amount of stress. This phenomenon can even happen very early in childhood, and the effects can last into adulthood. Individuals can overcome stress reactions through laughter and positive thinking. The power of positive thinking is evident in the fact that the placebo effect has a strong impact on the efficacy of medical treatments.

This is an area of interest for researchers concerned with the mind-body connection. Some of this research has established in animals that the immune system is capable of learning from conditioned responses. In humans, stress has been shown to increase both the likelihood of falling ill when exposed to infectious disease as well as the length of time necessary to heal from wounds. In particular, stress from social isolation has been shown to be a strong contributing factor to weakened immune response.

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