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Understanding stress

What is stress?

Stress is a part of most people’s lives, and it can be understood from medical and non-medical perspectives. But whichever way we choose to understand stress, there is one thing we can all agree on: that stress has roots in physical and psychological contexts. That is, when one feels stressed, the effects of stress can be felt physically and emotionally, and this effect varies at different points for different people. How you react to stress is very likely different from how another person would.

Here are some ways in which people have articulated an understanding of stress:

“a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension”;
“a fact of nature in which forces from the inside or outside world affect the individual, either one’s emotional or physical well-being, or both”;
“primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals”;
“a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that ‘Demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilise’”

Source: A Needs Assessment: Stress management and burnout prevention for case workers and human rights activists working on issues of gender and sexuality in India – download here

Is all stress bad?

Common ideas around stress earlier were that it is not always bad; after all, deadlines and last-minute panic often spur many of us into completing tasks that otherwise would never get done! However, recent studies have shown that any kind of stress triggers responses in the body (from increased cortisol to elevated heart rate, for example) that are harmful, and of course, unnecessary. Unrelenting stress could be damaging in multiple ways – to ourselves, our loved ones, our colleagues, the movements we are a part of, and more.

What are unique stressors?

Every individual is an ecosystem that brings together many identities. Age. Gender. Sexual identity. Caste. Religion. Location. Language. Disability status. Education. Occupation. Marital status. And more.

The position we occupy in each of these areas (and more) makes each of us unique.

Therefore, the factors that cause stress, i.e. stressors, also vary for each of us.

The stressors of a woman with disability working in a multi-national company in a city will be different from a woman with disability who practices sex work in a rural town. The stressors of a 50-year-old gay man will be different from a younger gay man – and this will be due to factors beyond just their differences in age.

What kinds of effects can stress have?

Stress affects every individual differently. Some may feel mainly the psychological effects of stress, while many others feel it manifesting in their bodies too – common symptoms are headaches and some impact on digestion, sleep and appetite. Stress can also manifest as physical pain in limbs or other parts of the body. Human beings are ecosystems of their own, so the mind and body are connected in ways that we are only beginning to learn about.

While the effects of stress on an individual are worrying enough, stress also affects our environment, and the people with whom we interact. It is likely that you will know when someone around you – a family member, a loved one, or a colleague – are feeling the effects of your stress. Stress could affect, for a short or long time, one’s relationships, health,  interest in and ability to do their work, and possibly question the values one holds.

What do I do if I’m feeling stressed?

Stress is a part of our lives, so rather than wishing stress away, one will find it more empowering to find ways to it better. When self-care is an integral part of one’s life, it helps us manage small, everyday stress better. Self-care also helps us build resilience over time, helping us cope better with potential situations of stress. Finally, a part of self-care is also about regularly reflecting on our values and reminding ourselves about why we do what we do.

Self-care can include simple steps that can immediately reduce the physical effects of stress, such as taking deep breaths. Or taking a break in some way – say, listening to music or something soothing, getting a distraction from the stressful environment such as stepping out, getting a warm, soothing beverage, and so on.

That said, since stress can be because of diverse factors – personal, organisational or societal – self-care that only includes simple activities such as the ones listed above may not always be effective in the long run. These factors may require more systematic work, not just as an individual, but also as an individual part of a larger organisation, collective or society. 

But worry not! This website is dedicated to helping you reflect and find ways to manage stress and prevent burnout. And to start with, we want to acknowledge the following three aspects, which can go a long way in stress management and burnout prevention. We will fill this website with more information and resources on the following topics, but in the meantime, we have listed a few links that will help you learn more (and we’ll add more soon).

  1. Setting  boundaries: The Alternative Story’s podcast on setting boundaries
  2. Habit formation: James Clear on HabitsTiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything by Dr. BJ Fogg. Check out these free trainings on how habits can help you with positivity and wellness.
  3. Time management:  Why is time management key?; Women, Work, Creativity, Leisure and Time. Because Time is a Feminist Issue; and Time Management for Busy Activists 
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