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Stress was a good thing until modern life spoilt us

In this extract from Mastering Behaviour: Managing Self and Others, author Payal Anand explains how the present life has distorted our understanding of processes that were helpful for us

Stress was a biological phenomenon against a physical or mental threat that was created to work in our favour (to alarm us of dangers), instead of working against us. (iStock)

Once, in an organizational behaviour class, I asked my students, ‘What is that one thing that makes you similar to others sitting in the class?’ Their answer, ‘The fact that we all are stressed out and depressed’. While it really sounded funny, in reality, it isn’t.

For one of my research projects, I particularly wanted to dig a little deeper and understand if managing stress is really a pervasive issue for young working professionals. I asked around 450 working professionals ‘What bothers you most at work?’ After analysing the responses, there were five major trends observed as a result of word cloud analysis. The dissolution of work-life boundaries and its consequent strain was one of the major observations that came out consistently. The next couple of trends that stood out were the building up of frustration and physical and psychological exhaustion. The overall feeling of gloominess and loneliness were the last two that completed the top five trends. Frankly, these trends do not baffle me. They all have been in the heavily discussed topics in psychology.

Also read: Five easy ways to stay grounded in stressful situations

However, if you notice, the common denominator for all the above-mentioned issues is stress. Work may become stressful for us if we perceive too many challenges, demands and threats in the environment that we are not able to deal.

Imagine a casual day when your boss asked you to make an impromptu presentation in front of the board members. Or you heard bad news from the client you were not prepared for. Do you feel a sudden rush in your body? Your breathing becomes heavier and/or you feel a sudden weakness in the gut or legs. Do you suddenly become more attentive and eyes get dilated? All of us do. This is a natural response of our body when we see a life-threatening situation. This is our bodily response of fight or flight, also known as acute stress response. Either we fight, in other words, approach the situation, or we flee, that is, avoid the situation. Both are different and separate constructs. Through this mechanism, once our brain senses a life-threatening situation, it prepares to cope with it. ‘Stress’, in this regard, acts as a signal to the brain, which then releases a stress hormone, whose objective is to create an alarm in us.

By SAGE Publications India
By SAGE Publications India (Courtesy SAGE Publications)

The way stress was defined traditionally is in stark contrast with its modern definition. The old definitions explicitly indicated the positive connotation that was attached with stress at that point. It is intriguing to know that stress was a biological phenomenon against a physical or mental threat that was created to work in our favour (to alarm us of dangers), instead of working against us. The modern definition of stress, however, speaks volumes about the current interpretation of the phenomenon. The contemporary scholars define it as ‘a feeling of emotional strain and pressure’. Shocking, isn’t it? Modern lives have distorted our understanding of events and processes that once were considered as a gift to humankind.

Many years ago, we started off on a note that stress is positive and helpful for our survival. However, as kids growing up, we never heard people telling us that stress is positive. We commonly hear people saying, ‘Stress is bad for our emotional, mental and physical health,’ ‘Stress can be severely detrimental to life,’ and ‘Don’t stress yourself over things’. No doubt stress has become one of the most common reasons for psychosomatic illnesses in the current times. If stress was supposed to be helpful to our survival, why did it become detrimental to our lives?

Note that over the years, our body has evolved to respond in a certain way (fight or flight) every time it encounters danger. Whether it is an attack from an animal or nomophobia, what we define as ‘dangerous’ or ‘stressful’ for ourselves is completely upon us. Our body will react accordingly. It is saddening that, in current times, not getting the ‘best employee of the year’ award is comparable to hunting for food and saving ourselves from man-eaters. So, who is to be blamed? It goes without saying, we have not quite understood the importance of acute stress in our lives. Unfortunately, we have not fully accepted that those heated arguments with clients/boss/colleagues or that two hours extra work that we did the other day for free are part and parcel of life. These events, by no means, are and should become a source of stress for us. These events should not control our lives. We really have not quite understood it.

Edited and excerpted with permission from SAGE Publications India from Mastering Behaviour: Managing Self And Others by Payal Anand.

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