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Stress – what exactly is it?

published by Markus Bauer in Work August 3, 2021
Markus Bauer
"I'm stressed"

– a phrase that a great many people continually use on a daily basis. The majority of people consider stress to be something negative, but for many the condition has become normality.

Essentially, and in terms of the original meaning of the word, stress is a very healthy reaction on the part of the body. It increases physical and mental performance and protects us against hazards.

This enables us to better overcome challenges and critical situations, and we develop and progress. In particular, when participating in sport or other high-stress activities, e.g. at work, a short-term stress reaction is vital in order to meet challenging requirements as well as possible.

However, stress can also be dangerous for us, and make us ill. Here you will find out when this is the case, and how you can remain healthy.

01. Stress – a base instinct that ensures survival

The stress response is a very old and quickly evolving mechanism, which ensured our physical survival in ancient times, and remains active to this day in the brain stem. In stress situations, complex processes are activated throughout our entire system, in a matter of milliseconds, and we are placed on alert - ready to fight, flee, or freeze. These reactions are not only controlled by the vegetative nervous system, but also by hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin, cortisol, etc. This results in reflex-like changes in our bodies, accompanied by an increase in heart rate/blood pressure, an elevated respiratory rate, increased muscle tone, the mobilisation of energy reserves, and the reduction of sensitivity to pain. In ancient times, all of this helped us to fight mammoths, flee enemies, or caused us to freeze.

In the short term this is a very intelligent, but also energy-draining strategy, which in ideal circumstances guarantees survival on account of our increased readiness.

In short, time-limited phases this poses no problem for people, when followed by a period of relaxation.

02. Why we need stress

The aim is to bring our entire system into balance, i.e. to strike the right balance between stress and relief. This applies both to our minds and our bodies, as moth of these systems have a mutual influence over one another.

The same rule as applies in elite sport also applies here: "Those spend a lot of time training, must also spend a lot of time recovering"! Stress is OK, but please follow it up with relaxation. In sport, an increase in performance is achieved by means of targeted, optimal stimulation, whereby adjustment processes take place during the recovery phases and a super-compensation effect occurs/ This means that we then find ourselves on a higher performance level. If we neglect regeneration, there will be no performance increase and, in the worst case, performance may even deteriorate. Our body consequently strives for a cycle of stress and relief.

Our vegetative nervous system is also built this way: it consists of two large sections, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system prepares our systems for an emergency stress response in the event of excessive stimuli (fight or flight) and activates diverse processes with a view to enhancing performance.

The parasympathetic nervous system is generally responsible for our relaxation and wellbeing, and activates regeneration processes. Healthy stress regulation, ie.e a good balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, preserves our health.

03. What happens in the body during stress?

The "stress" survival mode comes at a price when it occurs over a long period of time and is followed by little or no regeneration: the immune system slows down, digestion and regeneration/repair processes grind to a halt, and rest and sleep are out of the question.

Complex strategic thought processes and planned actions associated with specific brain structures (prefrontal cortex) only take place to a minimal extent. We are acting on reflex.

This results in reduced capacities, such as out capacity to think, concentrate, pay attention, make decisions, be creative, communicate, demonstrate empathy etc. However, in our modern (working) world, these capacities are of major, and often crucial, significance. Nowadays it is normally no longer the case that we are battling for our survival, however, the evolutionary mechanisms are still in motion, based on our experiences, our undertakings and our competencies.

In the majority of cases, continual, intense stress, over a long or short term, limits our mental and physical capacity. Permanent and continuous stress (survival mode) results in dysfunctional adjustment processes and structural changes in our body and brain, which can cause damage in the medium to long term.

In the worst cases this results in symptoms such as pain and impairments, or manifest conditions such as burnout, high blood pressure etc. can develop. In their own way, our systems compel us to take a break or make a change.

04. What are the symptoms of stress?

As bio-psychosocial systems, stress expresses itself in human beings on various levels. Our body, our psyche and our environment, be this our professional or private environment, are in continual interplay, and mutually influence each other, whether positively or negatively.

Resulting stress symptoms can include:

  • Headaches
  • Circulatory problems
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased respiratory frequency
  • Musculo-facial tension
  • Stomach pain
  • Digestive disorders
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Dizziness
  • Nervous tension
  • Oversensitivity
  • Feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed
  • Pessimism
  • Depression
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Forgetfulness
  • Internal unrest
  • A lack of empathy
  • Conflict within a social setting
  • Performance loss

Stress factors can be divided into internal and external stressors, which can cause stress and consequently bring about an adjustment response in the person in question. The body interprets the stimuli that are acting upon it, and assesses these as a challenge or as a threat, i.e. either positively or negatively. Examples of stressors can be found below.

Internal stressors can include

  • Fears
  • Worries
  • Self-worth issues
  • Our own demands/expectations
  • Perfectionism
  • Feelings of inferiority
Internal stressors can include:

Externalstressors can include

  • Illness
  • Separation/grieving
  • Noise
  • Financial difficulties
  • Deadline pressure
  • Moving house / job
Externalstressors can include:

05. When stress becomes a problem

The more internal and external stressors there are in play, the more likely we are to become ill over time. If this persists over a longer period, referred to as continuous stress, the body responds accordingly. Our system wants to protect us because the energy deficiency is too great, and we experience a reflex to feign death (tonic immobility), which is initiated via a special part of the parasympathetic nervous system. The aim here is to protect our remaining resources, and we are no longer able to continue on.

06. How you can relieve stress

One fundamental objective if we are to escape from the stress trap is, crudely put, "adrenalin reduction". Following the stimulus to which you were exposed, whether during sport or at work, you must make sure that you also recover.

You can do this through:

  • Moderate movement
  • Sufficient sleep
  • Strategic scheduling of breaks
  • The use of regeneration methods and tools e.g. fascia products
  • Learning breathing techniques
  • Integration of mindfulness and relaxation techniques
  • Power naps
  • Meditation
  • Frequency-modulated music
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