Psychological Stress and Identity

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Robert A. Dato, PhD, NCPsyA

If we view the phenomenon of stress from the broad perspective afforded us by evolution, we cannot help but surmise that stress serves some evolutionary purpose. Otherwise, it would have been extinguished eons ago through the process of Natural Selection. For Nature is practical and elegant, and elegance excludes excess.

It is not difficult to delineate at least one purpose of stress, that of helping us to survive. On some level, we are all aware that stress is inversely proportional to survivability. That is, the greater our stress, the less chance we have of surviving. We seem to instinctively use stress to monitor the conditions of pressure that affect us, as well as our adaptability to these pressures. As a result, we are able to accomplish the most crucial task of life, self-preservation.

But living entails much more than surviving. We are here not only to survive, but to thrive. Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the evolving, creative force we call civilization. Each of us is obligated to discover an identity in order that we may fulfill the true requirements of life and give it meaning.

Stress can and does play an important role in this scenario. As we move through life in pursuit of the singularly exciting experience of finding out who we are, it is impossible to avoid the impact of our surroundings. We are intrigued by its challenges, just as we are awed by its complexity and beauty. Time and time again we test our strengths and skills in this vast arena. We learn what we can and cannot do. Success brings satisfaction, but failure only stress. Success tells us who we are, and stress, who we are not.

Thus, stress can be a very positive force in life. It can keep us out of danger as well as help us to become who we are. Its role in identity formation may be indirect; nevertheless, it is surely not inconsequential. But for the marble on the floor, the sculpture would have no form.

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