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 Herbal Medicine: Stress - What is it and what causes it? 
There are several ways to define stress. Perhaps the most encompassing is: "Stress is the response of the body to any demand." Just staying alive creates demands on the body for life maintaining energy; even while we are asleep, our bodies continue to function. So by this definition, stress is a fundamental part of being alive and should not be avoided! The trick is to ensure that the degree of stress we experience is such that life is a joy, not a drag.

From this perspective, energy usage is one characteristic of stress. Another characteristic is lack of specificity. Any demands made upon us in daily life bring about certain reactions in the body. These same reactions occur under a whole range of different conditions, both physical and emotional - from hot and cold to joy and sorrow. As aware, feeling people, we probably make a big distinction between the pain caused by the loss of a loved one and the pain caused by the temperature dropping too fast; but the nature of the demand is unimportant at the biological level. To the body, it's all the same because the stress response is always the same. Nerve signals are sent from the brain to several glands, and these react by secreting hormones to cope with the task ahead. So stress is not just worry and strain. It is a keynote of life, with all its ups and downs. A new and exciting love can cause us as much stress as a cranky boss.

The range of responses triggered by stress demonstrates the intricate ties that exist between the mental and physical components of who we are. Before we look a little closer at these responses, it may be useful to review some of the scientific theories about stress. It may seem that many of these theories revolve around minor semantic differences. I'm afraid that appears to be the level of the research on the topic to date.

Theories about stress tend to fall into three categories:

  1. Stress as a stimulus: this category attempts to describe the various unpleasant situations that cause stress.
  2. Stress as a response: this category attempts to describe the responses that occur in the body or the mind when we are confronted by an unpleasant situation.
  3. Stress as a perceived threat: this category views stress as a reflection of our own perception that we cannot cope with our environment.
Stress as a Stimulus
Stimulus-based approaches to stress are concerned with identifying aspects of the environment that have an unpleasant effect on us. This very simple approach views human stress as being the same as the physical stress involved in an engineering project like building a bridge. The concern is with identifying stressful situations and determining how and why they affect the mind and body. This category of research has focused mostly on the workplace and on factors such as ambient noise levels and heat, as well as things like job demands. Working under deadlines with large amounts of information to be processed would be rated as stressful under this approach, as would be monotony, isolation, and situations in which we have little control over events.

Viewing stress this way is fine if we think of people as girder bridges, but that's not how an herbalist views them! Two of the problems with this mechanistic approach to stress are:

  • Particular situations are not inherently stressful, and there is a large variation in their effect on different people. For example, the noise of a disco is stressful for some people, while others thrive on it.
  • There are even variations in the same individual's responses to the same situation at different times. Whether we are well rested or fatigued might determine how stressful we find traffic jams, for example.
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 About The Author
David Hoffmann BSc (Hons), MNIMHWhilst working in conservation and lecturing in ecology and the eco-crisis for the University of Wales, David Hoffman became convinced that to heal the world, to embrace planetary wholeness and responsibility for it......more
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