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366. No Stress? Know Stress!

Jang, Min-young, So, Yi-hyeon, Heo, Won-jun 기자2017.05.11 23:35:00


The most frequently used exotic word among Koreans is ‘Stress’. Even a newly coined word, ‘sibal expense’, means money that people would not have wasted, if they were not stressed. As we can see, stress is a big problem among Koreans. We’ve all experienced stress, but what is it? To answer this question, we will see what stress is, how it works and how to deal with it.


What is stress?


It has been one hundred years since the notion of ‘Stress’ became well-known. Stress, stemming from the Latin word ‘stringere,’ meaning tension and tightness, was first used in the field of Engineering and Physics. Exercise physiologist, Walter B. Canon, used the word ‘stress’ as a notion that when human beings get stressed they have a fight-or-flight response as a survival mechanism. For example, let us suppose you are in the middle of the desert. You feel that something weird coming toward you with rustling sound. Then, your heart starts to pound faster and your breathing becomes rougher. For a split second, your body detects the danger and decides either to fight or to fly. This is important because if you are not agile enough, you could lose your life. As we can see, stress is a survival mechanism that makes our body react more promptly and decide how to cope with the environment.


There are basically two types of stress: distress and eustress. Distress is the most commonly referred to type of stress, having negative implications. It can cause anxiety or depression no matter how people cope with the problem. On the other hand, eustress means beneficial stress, which is the positive cognitive response to stress that is healthy or gives one a feeling of fulfillment. For instance, the nervousness created when waiting to step on the platform to receive an award or entering a wedding hall is a kind of eustress. This kind of stress may be a burden at the time, but it helps us to deal with the stressful situation.


Scientific Approach to Stress


Our nervous system, since the beginning of mankind, been adapted to an environment very different from modern civilization. For example, just a few decades ago, people fell asleep in the dark, and woke up when the sun rose and roosters cried. However, thanks to the development of science now, that is no longer the case. The way human brain responses to stress is not significantly different from that of 100,000 years ago. However, we are surrounded by unpredictable stimuli, so we feel more stressed out by constant tension.


           Reaction to stress is carried out in two major steps. First, when there is a stimulus which can be recognized by our senses as a hazard, the autonomic nervous system responds. Then, the hypophysis and the adrenal cortex, which are parts of the human brain, massively release hormones related to stress, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Second, the frontal lobe judges what the situation is. If the situation turns out to be nothing unusual, the frontal lobes signal you to relax. However, if it is considered as a real emergency, the amygdala signals you to escape. 


The amygdala is a tiny organization of the middle part of brain, which is located in both left and right sides of the brain. The amygdala usually activates the sympathetic nervous system of the autonomic nervous system, enabling the body to be nervous. In such moment, the human brain solely focuses on survival and cannot judge rationally. This is because the amygdala is activated without passing through the rational thinking circuit of the brain. Therefore, the brain only makes habitual responses. There is no time to reconsider the situation carefully, so people cannot help reacting instinctively.


Trauma is also in the same vein. Having experienced a stress continuously or a significant shock, the brain reminds itself of the similar traumatic memories and continues to activate the amygdala by raising the alarm inside. This is because the amygdala is located close to the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory. Once these memories are repeated, the amygdala keeps repeating these cycles and ultimately causing chronic stress. Sometimes, anxiety and fear occur for no specific reasons. For example, when a test is coming up, no matter how difficult, or how much one has prepared, one feels anxiety because of the past stressful memories.


Finally, one important point is not to make an immediate response to a stressful situation. Take some time to consider about it and escape the swamp of instinctive responses to the stress.


Misconceptions about Stress


Mythologies, misconceptions, and doubts follow popularity. Stress is no exception, being a popular topic worldwide.


Some people find joy in pushing themselves to their limit, sometimes putting themselves in stressful situations. Those people tend to say they are addicted to stress, but what they are probably indicating is adrenaline rush. What is really addictive is not stress but the emitted hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, when facing stress. If they are in the body system for a short period of time, these hormones boost strength and concentration level, but if they remain too long, permanent damage can occur, along with a possibility of addiction.


‘Stress is a fundamental cause of all illnesses’ is what people have been saying. Generally, peace of mind is thought to bring both mental and physical health, because they are fundamentally linked. Poor mental health can lead to chronic physical conditions and vice versa. So, is it true that stress is a fundamental cause of all illnesses? The answer to this prejudice is both yes and no, because it depends on how one views a stressful situation. A circumstance may be endurable to one person, but cause immense stress to another. If the stressful situation is regarded as somewhat tolerable, the symptoms such as increase in blood pressure and tension will be temporary. However, if the stress is too intense and constant, it can cause an irreversible damage in the brain.


Stress can be a cause of minor and even major illnesses and it seems as though various kinds of symptoms follow stress. However, this is not entirely true. There can be stress despite the absence of symptoms. For example, taking medication may conceal symptoms such as headaches, stomach acid, or depression, but it does not mean that the mental state is completely healed. The psychological restraint should not be overlooked although there are no major symptoms.


Stressful Korea


Korea is known for its fast economic growth; It has developed a similar expansion in the short period of 60 years to that which western society gradually achieved over hundreds of years. However, on the dark side, it has ranked highest in suicide rates among OECD nations for several years. Korea is ranked as the 58th happiest country in the world, out of 155 countries; the happiness index, 0 (unhappy) – 10 (happy), has continuously fallen, from 6.27 in 2013 to 5.98 in 2015, and finally, 5.84 in 2016.


Moreover, according to new research by Statistics Korea, the real GDP grew 28.6% from 2006 to 2015 whereas the general quality of life increased by 11.8%. This means the quality of life improved about 2.4 times slower than the national economy. Among 12 fields which indicate the general quality of life, three fields showed comparably slow growth: employment wages, housing, and health. The quality of life in the field of family and community has even decreased. This is due to the weakened bond among communities with the rise of one-person households.


Why can Koreans attain impressive expansion outward but feel as though they have little internal space?  It may have to do with the cultural characteristics resulting from this massive development. After the independence and the Korean War, Korea grew somewhat impatient at being under-developed compared to the more advanced countries. To escape its poverty, Korea had to cling to tangible improvements. This is one of the reasons that led to endless competition in which people needed to be faster and smarter. With the famous Korean “hurry, hurry” culture, the citizens achieved the 11th biggest economy in the world by 2015.


According to OECD statistics, Korea ranked second in terms of the longest working hours in 2015. However, in contrast to the time Koreans spend working, they do not have as much time to look after their worn out mental states, past or present. This is reflected in research conducted 10 years ago by a neuropsychiatrist; 920 workers in Seoul participated in a survey about their most preferred way of relieving stress. The top 2 methods were sleeping and drinking in that order. There were 25 choices of ways to relieve stress in the survey. Of them, 28.7% of people chose what is  known as the healthy ways to relieve stress, such as conversing with friends or investing time on their hobbies, while 29.5% chose unhealthy measures such as drinking, smoking, watching TV, or playing video games. The conductor of the survey identified the problem: “Koreans tend to respond more passively towards stress, compared to the Americans or British who participated in the survey. They try to forget stressful situations through drinking rather than through activities such as exercising or enjoying their hobbies.”


Koreans have been failing to relieve stress effectively, but now it is time to look after ourselves. When stress seems unavoidable, looking for a stress relief strategy that best suits one’s own interest is advisable. Not all popular methods are effective for everyone. To solve a problem, recognizing what the problem is first may be appropriate. Statistics Korea has conducted research on Quality of Life to fathom the fundamental problem and to understand where to start. Future research will hopefully have better results than the first one, as we start to look after our state of mind.



Coloring Book

– One of the most famous methods of relieving stress


Coloring books became famous with the book named Secret Garden made by a Scottish writer named Johanna Basford. It was not popular when it was first published in England, but when it was published in France, it gained explosive popularity by adding the phrase ‘anti-stress’. It shows the public's desire to relieve stress. Patterns used in coloring therapy have one thing in common; they are symmetrical. Here we can find a hint on the principle of relieving stress, which is a balance, or symmetry. It is already widely known that organisms instinctively love symmetry. For example, when a female butterfly chooses a male butterfly to mate, the probability of selecting a male butterfly with a more perfectly symmetrical wing is relatively high. In this way, we consider harmonious things beautiful, and feel a sense of security in a balanced environment.


Self Test: How Much You Are Stressed?



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