Throughout the corpus of literature on Stress from Dr. Selye on out, a few common refrains appear, and one of these is that Stress is highly personal. This includes everything from susceptibility to stressors, through the experience of stress, to the way one reacts to the stress one experiences.
First, different individuals have different thresholds of reaction to stressors or stressful situations to the extent that “two people doing the same job can react in opposite ways to a shared occupational stressor,” according to the Australian Psychological Society. This point can be illustrated quite easily with an everyday observation. Most persons experience marginal or minor stress watching a game on TV. However, they experience distinct feelings of stress when they actually participate in a competitive game or match — winning a match can give rise to exhilarating eustress; having a close call go against you that costs you the match could make you curse in frustration — stress.
Because different persons have “different thresholds for responses to stress,” according to the BMJ, it follows that some persons have a very high stress threshold. Playing sports just doesn’t ‘do it’ for them. They need extra ‘oomph’ from any activities they engage in. And so, they go jumping . . . out of a plane at 25,000 feet! Skydivers and other thrillseekers need or want highly stressful situations to get that ‘pleasurable spike’ that most persons get when they score a goal or take a wicket. For a majority of persons, jumping out of a plane is just ‘plain’ crazy — that’s far more stress than most persons can handle or need. And that illustrates the point: stress is highly personal. And so, how do you ‘do’ stress?
How about this scenario: say three 30-year-old friends in good health and only minor life-stresses are required to go skydiving (and none of them has undertaken this high-anxiety sport before). Now look over the list of effects and symptoms in the previous article in this series. Perhaps the first friend gets cold, clammy hands or feet while the second may have an out-and-out panic attack. And the third friend? Why, he feels a touch of excitement, gets a little talkative and can’t wait to jump out of the plane — whooo! Three different persons; three different stress reactions to the same stressor. Which one are you?
There’s also a variable involved. Observe that above scenario is qualified with the three friends having about the same amount of pre-existing stress: “only minor life-stresses . . . .” That’s because the stress one feels in a stressful situation is affected by, besides the person’s own nature, the ‘stress load’ that person is carrying. Given that stress is cumulative, stress ‘builds up’ in you. As this build-up increases, it leaves you increasingly susceptible to that next incident sending you ‘over the brink’.
Psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe tried to quantify this stress accumulation. They devised the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), aka ‘Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory’, which is a test to calculate your cumulative stress score. It comprises of a set of ‘Life Change Units’ (LCUs), each of which has differing scores, ranging from ‘Death of Spouse’ the highest at 100 to ‘Minor Violations of the Law’ the lowest at 11. The idea is to run through these LCU’s, ticking those you have experienced in the past year and tot up your overall score. A tally of 300-plus indicates that the test-taker is headed for illness while a sub-150 score means that stress-wise you’re in good shape.
Holmes and Rahe’s helpful test doesn’t tell you how you ‘do’ stress as a person, an individual, but it will quickly tell you how burdened by stress you are and how prone to stress-related illness you are (or were) at a particular point in your life.
Regardless of your stress score, the key concept is that no one stressor will affect two persons exactly the same way; the individual is critical. At the same time, the good news is that you’re not a victim of your genes, you are in control.
For now, let’s analyze this individual difference. Some persons’ stress thresholds are so low that they admit the smallest thing — a slow internet connection or a delayed appointment, for instance — stresses them out. For others it’s so high that they can even remain calm and collected in situations where most others are bundles of nerves or are unable to make rational decisions, e.g. stampedes in public places, getting caught in a natural disaster. It’s partly how you’re affected but also partly how you take it. Examining stress at a mundane level may offer a clue.
At the mundane level of day-in, day-out, stressors such as problematic colleagues, grating in-laws, and faulty appliances, you may have observed something interesting. The persons who are most ‘stressed out’ are the ones who care the most, who are the most competitive, who seek to attain perfection. Those who seem immune to stress are those persons with an indifferent, cavalier, “couldn’t care less” attitude, right? Now that gives us a pointer as to how we might manage stress. Intensity of living is a factor that determines how you ‘do’ stress. Note that this is not to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship; a person’s intensity of feeling or caring usually, though not always, directly correlates with his/her stress levels.
Here’s another clue:– Well-centred individuals with a personal sense of purpose — persons with keen interests, those who know ‘where they’re going’ — usually handle stress well; to them stressful situations are like water off a duck’s back. However, persons without a sense of purpose, those who are dependent on others for their purpose or emotional well-being, are buffetted about and more easily stressed — and naturally enough, because their purpose does not come from within, but, from without. Because such a person is not in control of his or her life, what would be non-events to a person with a sense of purpose are stressors to this person.
It is by recognizing these differences between individual make-up and their differing stress thresholds that you can learn how to cope with, manage, and control stress, and embark upon your personal path to stress-free wellness.