People do not need to study the biology of stress to gain a practical understanding of how it affects them. If people start with the understanding that stress is an event or a force that upsets a balance, they can begin to see some of the ways that they might be affected by stress. Seeing clearly where undesirable stress occurs in one’s life is the first step in managing it. One can examine how stress affects his or her body, emotions and thoughts.
Physical or External Stress
Physical or external stress, stress which affects the body, is the most straightforward and easy to identify. When people work too hard, stay up too late, or eat and drink too much, they feel the direct physical results of these actions. They are more likely to sleep poorly and feel tired and ill.
Some external stresses seem beyond one’s control. The stress of a job that is boring, unrewarding or excessively demanding can make one miserable and more prone to illness. However, it is more difficult to correct this kind of problem than it is to eat a healthy diet or get more sleep. When one has a medical illness, even if it is relatively minor such as a cold or the flu, it becomes increasingly obvious how this physical stress affects his or her sense of well-being and quality of life. Clearly, a major or life-threatening illness creates stress in many different dimensions of one’s life. Some physicians think that the stress that accompanies sickness is one of the major obstacles to becoming well.
Psychological or Emotional Stress
Psychological or emotional stress may seem less concrete, but it has an equally definite effect on an individual’s health and well-being. Being able to identify areas of psychological stress is challenging, but important since they may have an even greater impact on one’s happiness than physical or external stress.
When people are lonely, depressed or unhappy, they are more likely to become sick and less likely to enjoy the things that should give them pleasure. When people have any type of stress that exceeds what they can comfortably manage, they are much more likely to become depressed and anxious.
It can be difficult to identify an internal or psychological stress. Although these inner stresses often make people feel uncomfortable, it is easier to blame something external for the discomfort. It takes a considerable amount of psychological strength to be able to consciously handle this kind of stress instead of being swept along with it. Often, the first step it is to look clearly at one’s own feelings and honestly ask oneself what it is that causes inner difficulty or pain.
Stress and Distortions in Thinking
Stress also affects what people think. When individuals are very stressed, particularly if they become anxious or depressed, their ability to think clearly and objectively may be affected. People can easily feel less capable or weaker than they truly are, and think that their situation is much worse than it really is.
These kinds of subtle distortions in thinking can be difficult to identify. When one has a thought such as “I just cannot do anything right” or “this is hopeless,” he or she may take it for granted that the thought is true. This is not necessarily so because people’s thoughts can be completely untrue. An exaggerated inaccurate thought such as “I’m totally worthless,” may be believed because the feeling behind it is true; it reflects a true feeling of despair or hopelessness. It is too easy to accept distorted thinking that goes along with an emotion and act as if it is true.
People sometimes deny that their thinking is affected by their feelings. Believing distorted or negative thoughts makes it more difficult to work effectively to address one’s problems. If individuals really believe that everything is hopeless and that they will never do anything right, they are less capable of critically assessing their situation in order to improve it. If one is depressed and feels hopeless enough, sometimes it seems easier to throw up his or her hands in despair than to deal with the real problems. The only way to know if a thought is accurate is to look directly at the thought as it occurs and examine it.