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Friday, 9 April, 1999, 13:10 GMT 14:10 UK
Stewing in your juices
BBC Doctor Colin Thomas
BBC Doctor Colin Thomas says the stress response is essential
Mother Nature created the stress response to help us.

We are, after all, civilised wild animals, and when under threat from a predator it is important that all our body functions are tuned to perfection to either fight our corner, or get the hell out of there. The so-called fight or flight response.

Almost instantly our heart rate increases, the blood vessels in the heart and lungs dilate and set the body on 'overdrive'.

That's why when you were outside the headmaster's office you got a dry throat, butterflies in the tummy, and you needed to go to the toilet!

I know a journalist who told me that, when a big story broke, her vision seemed to become clearer.

This was probably due to the surge of adrenalin that she experienced with the rush of a good story sharpening the senses.

Adrenalin is the body hormone that achieves this boost. There have been many recorded cases of ordinary people performing superhuman feats like lifting up cars to release trapped people when they are 'charged up' with adrenalin.

However, the body can't operate at this level for very long.

That's the good side of Mother Nature's stress mechanism. The bad news is that we don't now have the threat of sabre tooth tigers or woolly mammoths to contend with.

But we still have that primitive mechanism intact. Stone Age man did not have the 'threat' of programmable video recorders, horrible bosses or 'customer service' helplines.

Only this week, a major debate began on stress in the workplace, an issue which has divided health and safety experts.

Today's threats are not to life itself, but are still able to trigger our primitive response.

The trouble is that we don't now burn this extra adrenalin boost off by running away, or wrestling the tiger, and we literally stew in our own juices.

If the adrenalin response continues to fire off too regularly, then the body manufactures more, and eventually the mechanism fires off unexpectedly, which incidentally explains how people can have panic attacks at 2am in the morning when they should be asleep.

Difficult diagnosis

Stress is very difficult to diagnose. Not everyone will be stressed by the same things.

Some revel, for example, in public speaking, but others find it the most horrific experience of their life.

Stress is about being in control of your situation (or not).

There is no doubt that a brain surgeon has a higher pressure job than a shop assistant, but the shop assistant may be much more stressed because of lack of control over the work they do.

Stress occurs within us, not without us. Our perception is very important in shaping our response to difficult situations.

Once we start blaming someone else, it is easy to hide behind the 'victim' label.

Either we grow in capability to deal with the problem or task we are facing, or wilt in the heat.

Remember, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and I believe that this is the most important thing to consider when taking on, or being given, new roles or challenges - or failing that just eat more chocolate!

See also:

08 Apr 99 | Health
Stress at work debate begins
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