Crazy Little Thing Called Stress

The moment I walked off the plane, I was greeted by a man holding a sign with my name on it, who then escorted me to a limousine. I had just flown out to Hollywood to tape a talk show on stress. Los Angeles, the epitome of stress, was nothing less than frenetic, from the airport to the freeways to the heart of the city. When I walked into the studio, I thought, "You'd need an ax to cut through the tension in this place." People were running around like crazy: beauticians from the makeup department pranced all over, producers roamed the halls in search of the show's hosts, nervous guests paced the floors in their dressing rooms, and security guards with earphones and mikes raced around like the president's Secret Service, trying to keep everything in order. I sat patiently in the "green room," waiting to go on, and within minutes was escorted to the stage and quickly seated. After a brief introduction, the first question I was asked was "Dr. Seaward, what is stress?" At the time, it was hard to give a comprehensive answer in a sound bite, but I have more time now, so here is a more thorough answer.

Although there are many different definitions of stress, the one that I like best states that "stress is any change you encounter in your life." Today the words change and stress are often used synonymously, particularly in light of global terrorism and the national terrorism alert code. As a rule, people feel threatened by change. We don't like change because it tends to disrupt our comfort zones, which can include anything from our daily routines to our thoughts, opinions, and attitudes about all aspects of life. Like the tectonic plates that shift and crumble during a violent earthquake, change can dramatically shift the foundation of our lives and quite literally move the earth on which we walk.

There are many definitions of stress. Each definition depends on which expert (e.g., psychologist, sociologist, physiologist, or theologian) you talk to. The word stress comes from the field of physics. In the simplest terms, "stress is the force or pressure applied to an object, enough to bend or break it." If you have ever been emotionally distraught or overwhelmed beyond belief, you surely know what this feels like. Professionals in the field of medicine tend to see stress as "wear and tear" on the body, and sure enough, there is a strong association between stress and disease. Therapists and counselors in the field of psychology define stress as the "inability to cope with problems," as well as "the loss of emotional control." People with a more spiritual approach say that "stress is the absence of inner peace." Quite honestly, all of these insights together, when examined through the mind-body-spirit equation, only begin to approach the essence of what stress really is. Ironically, stress is almost as complex to define as it is to resolve. An ancient Chinese proverb offers this insight: tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.

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