It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it
~Hans Selye ~
In case you were napping during fifth grade, The Bessimer process is a way of removing impurities from pig iron and turning it into steel. I remember needing headlights on our car to navigate through Lackawanna in the 1950’s. I also remember sulfur clouds rolling down the river towards Pittsburgh every Monday morning in the early 1960’s leaving their odor and thick layers of grit everywhere in their wake.
We don’t often think of stress as a good thing. Hans Selye studied stress at Johns Hopkins and McGill Universities. He also published a series of articles and books, notably The Stress of Life, a classic on the subject which brought stress to international attention. Selye noted the destructive effects of stress on our bodies and others elaborated on his findings.
Whole categories of drugs came into being to relieve us of stress. Yoga, meditation, exercise, dietary approaches, and psychological approaches all became part of our arsenal against experiencing stress. None of these approaches provide us with total immunity from stress. Natural disasters as well as the tragedies resulting from evil intentions compound our daily stress, affecting some of us more than others.
Stress does not upset just individuals. The Costa Concordia shipwreck sent ripples far from the coast of Tuscany. Speculation about the LeRoy girls’ neurological symptoms unsettled a community. Selye taught us that stress attacks the most vulnerable parts of our bodies. It also plays a role in heart disease, alcoholism, asthma and hypertension among other conditions. Our minds and our emotions also suffer from the effects of stress. Disappointment, dashed hopes and relationships on the rocks all unnerve us.
But is stress all bad? Could stress do the same for our lives as the Bessimer process does for steel? Is there a way we can use it to strengthen ourselves? I think there is. I have met several people who have reached middle age with no major stressful events. They sailed along easily until life’s adversity finally caught up with them. They had no idea what to do about it and wallowed helplessly in its grasp.
Many of us have experienced varying degrees of stress throughout our lives. We learned how to deal with it and how to manage our lives better. When new stressful situations arise, learning from our past experiences quickly rebalances our lives.
Not all of us find easy ways to manage or overcome stress. Fortunately we all have people around us who have learned to cope with our particular challenges. Professionals in our communities also specialize in managing stress. If our own resources don’t resolve it for us, we can call on them for their help and wisdom.