There’s a lot has been written about stress and anxiety over the years. “Stress” seems to be one of those words that everybody uses and we all feel we’re stressed, that we live a stressful lifestyle (and we're probably right).
Here’s a game though, imagine a conversation between you and a student that doesn’t speak your language.
Student: I keep hearing the word “Stress”. What does it mean?
You: Oh that’s easy it’s……… (OK, now take over, keep it concise and make sure the student can understand it.)
My guess is that it’s not as easy as you thought. It reminds me of that colloquial phrase that originally came from the Supreme Court in the US, “I don’t what it is but I know it when I see it”.
In biofeedback, we have to be a bit more specific and we have to make sure you and the therapist are using the word in the same way.
Stress is a change in a physiological system above or below homeostasis.
A stressor is something that causes that change.
OK, to explain it. The word “Homeostasis” is not one that most people will have encountered since secondary school. It basically means balance.
So here’s how it works: You’re reasonably relaxed, watching some TV, and your heart is beating at 72 beats per minute. Suddenly you hear a bang (it’s probably just the kids but you’d better check). You climb the stairs your pulse quickens slightly as you go (you tell yourself that you really must get more exercise). By the time you’re at the top you may be working at 110 beats per minute. That’s not a problem. That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. Your heart adjusts to the new demands but so does your blood pressure, digestion, temperature, sweat, breathing etc. You shout at the kids and go back down again. When you get back to the couch you settle back in, probably grunt or sigh as you expel air, and everything returns to homeostasis.
So what you’ve done is increased your heart rate (above homeostasis) in response to a stressor (movement, the kids, guilt depending on how you look at it). But, and this is the important bit, you quietened down again soon after. You returned to homeostasis.
If the stressor was something else though, like an argument or a job interview or a presentation and you don’t switch off, that’s when you start to lose sleep, get headaches, aches. Now you can safely say “I’m stressed!”