When does stress become harmful?

There is no easy way to predict what sort of stress, or how much, will produce an individual's optimum level of arousal. Fortunately, it is easy to identify groups of people who, on the whole, are at risk from harmful stress. An obvious one consists of people who are stressed in their employment. For example, doctors in the more stressful roles such as general practice or anaesthetics had a level of heart disease almost four times greater than that of pathologists and dermatologists in one study conducted in 1962.

But we must be careful not to forget that these investigations may simply have proved that heart disease is linked to particular personality traits such as enthusiasm and determination. These qualities could easily explain why people are given greater responsibility at work. The connection between personality and heart disease was investigated by Friedman who analyzed the personalities of many heart patients and found that they showed a particular set of characteristics:

  • an intense sustained ambition to achieve self-selected but poorly defined goals
  • a greatly pronounced tendency and eagerness to compete
  • a persistent desire for recognition and advancement
  • a continuous involvement in many different job aspects all of which are up against time limits
  • a marked tendency to work more quickly than necessary, both physically and mentally
  • constant mental and physical alertness

If you recognize yourself in the above descriptions, it may be wise to take steps to reduce stress, although there are, of course, other factors involved in heart disease besides personality. To take just one example, the relationship between smoking, dietary fats, exercise and stress is not completely clear. But stress at work clearly predisposes some people to develop heart problems and actually making yourself aware of this could prevent a fatal attack.

At this point is is highly relevant to mention the fact that many men in society are extremely stressed because they did not have adequate fathering. It is good fathering which enables a man to make good choices, to live with the consequences of them, to take responsibility for his actions, to be accountable for his actions, and to be strong enough to survive life's vicissitudes. So I highly recommend any process which enables a man to achieve the desirable state of mature masculinity - in particular male initiation rituals and rites of passage adapted for the 21st century. Check out this website which gives you access to a lot of male initiation processes.

You may wonder how the results of these investigations relate to our definition of stress (which indicates that an individual must perceive a potential threat to his physical and emotional wellbeing before he experiences stress). In fact it is not difficult to imagine a number of possible connections. For example, all the characteristics in the list above are traits of personality which would lead to someone taking responsibility very seriously. And a person who takes responsibility seriously is likely to be disturbed by the prospect of any failure. Responsibility also leads to worry, which is a major cause of stress. But there is, of course, more to it than that. Tom Cox and Colin Mackay have developed a theory to explain the origin of employment-related stress. They suggest that stress develops when somebody is subjected to internal and external demands which exceed his capability to meet those demands.

Internal demands take the form of one's own desire for a fulfilling job conducted in a reasonably comfortable environment with good working conditions and pay. Fulfilment may be interpreted individually; for example, work which presents a mental challenge or provides a particularly appreciated reward for success may be fulfilling for one person but not for another.

External demands are basically the psychological and physical requirements of an individual's employment. They are the sum total of such factors as the length of the working week, the periods of rest provided, the quality of work and the physical effort required. Nobody realized for many years that physical factors could be important in inducing stress; it is now understood that problems such as intense noise and repeatedly doing the same simple physical task produce stress and anxiety. One other demand which may be placed on somebody in their work is the need to play a role which is unsuited to their basic temperament and personality or the need to play two contradictory roles simultaneously.

For example, a man who is asked to undertake some business which he regards as unethical or immoral will be in conflict between his own standards of behaviour and the role he is expected to play. Not unnaturally, if an individual's role is ill-defined, he is also likely to be stressed because he is unsure of his objectives, his colleagues' expectations, whom he should report to, and what his responsibilities consist of.

Problems like this lead to tension, lack of fulfilment, sense of futility, reduced self-esteem and confidence, and these feelings must in turn cause even more stress. All in all, millions of working days a year are lost through employment-related stress, not to mention the amount of job dissatisfaction which exists because of it.

Another major cause of stress is unhappiness in personal relationships. This often shows up as irritability, moodiness, aggression, anxiety and depression rather than in a more physical way. People who are under stress for reasons like this are often well aware of the cause of their stress but do not know how to deal with it. We shall offer some suggestions for changing the situation in another page of the website.

As we already mentioned, worry is a common cause of stress and increased arousal. This is because worried thinking actually involves the creation of perceptions of threat. (In other words, one spends time and energy imagining all the possible ways in which things might go wrong, and the possible effects if things do go wrong.) Such thoughts can trigger the body's stress response system as effectively as objectively real threats. A later page of the website is devoted to certain aspects of the habit of worried thinking.

Recognizing Harmful Stress

Stress is generally not harmful over a few days or even a few weeks, as long as it is not intense. But when it is prolonged over a period of months or years it will be harmful in one way or another: if it does not produce some physical effect, it may well lower your efficiency to a point where effective coping with life and work is no longer possible. Additionally, stress lowers your resistance to psychological trauma and physical illness, besides simply making you feel wretched. So how can you tell whether or not you are stressed? There are, in fact, several methods. Some rely on simple self-observation; others are slightly more sophisticated and involve some system of measurement. The simpler methods of self-observation are:

Physical and Emotional Symptoms Of Stress

Stress shows up either as physical or emotional symptoms, or both. You can therefore check in Table 1 whether you have any obvious symptoms of stress. Some particularly common symptoms are physical tension, poor sleep, a general emotional malaise or feeling of dissatisfaction with life, anxiety, irritability, and depression.

Coping Behaviour

It is possible to identify stress through some of the ways in which people try to deal with it. Some people respond to stress with frantic activity, aggression or drive in the belief that they are mastering their situation and working very efficiently. In reality the way they throw themselves from activity to activity in a relentless effort to leave the stress behind simply causes further problems. Others try to lessen the effects of stress with tranquillizers or alcohol, or any of the other coping behaviours listed earlier.

The Quality Of Your Personal Relationships

The best clue may be the people around you. If the atmosphere in your family seems to have changed, or your friends seem to shun your company, or your employees remark on the fact that you used to be a much more agreeable person, perhaps the problem lies with you, not them?

A Decrease In Personal Efficiency

Stress tends to reduce your ability to discriminate between the essential and the non-essential, so that you may become preoccupied with unimportant matters while major problems remain to be solved. This means you work more and more but achieve less and less. Stress can also adversely affect your mental and physical co-ordination and muscular skill.


The fact that your lifestyle can be a sign of stress is pretty obvious. Many people in society struggle on against their stress-related problems without clearly recognizing the situation they are in. For example, many of us will be able to think of at least one high-powered man or woman: someone who takes on more and more work, never delegating responsibility for fear of the job not being done correctly; always busy, often frenetic, showing signs of sleeplessness and increasing fatigue.

And then there is the young housewife and mother, cooking meals, keeping house, coping with her children, who often seems at her wits' end. In quite the reverse way, some people allow events and circumstances to determine their course through life, perhaps because they do not know how to control events or because they lack the confidence to stand up for themselves. Such a passive acceptance of events can be genuinely stressful and lead to resentment, loss of self-esteem and depression. Nowadays, another common cause of stress is unemployment with its attendant financial and social problems. Family life and home affairs, too, are all potential sources of stress. In this kind of situation, you should question whether the pressures on you really are an inevitable and necessary part of your life structure. We shall examine this point more fully in subsequent chapters.

We'll show you how you can test your own stress levels on the next page.

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