Have you ever found yourself
in a situation where your to-do list appears to be unlimited, due dates are
quick, drawing nearer and you end up saying ‘Eek! I’m so stressed out!’? But
what is stress really, and how does it affect us?
WHAT IS STRESS?
If you were to ask twelve
individuals to define stress, you would likely get 12 different answers to your
request. The reason for this is that there is no definition of stress that
everyone concedes to, what is distressing for one individual might be
pleasurable or have little impact on others and we all react to stress
differently. Stress refers to experiencing events that are perceived as
endangering one’s physical or psychological well-being. These events are
usually referred to as stressors, and people’s reaction to them are termed as
Stress is primarily a
physical response. When stressed, your body responds as though you are in
danger, it releases a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline,
cortisol and norepinephrine. These chemicals speed up your heart, make you
breathe faster, and give you a burst of energy. This energy and strength can be
a good thing if stress is caused by physical danger. But this can also be a bad
thing, if stress is in response to something emotional and there is no outlet
for this extra energy and strength.
WHAT CAUSES STRESS?
Countless events cause
stress. Some are major changes affecting large number of people – events such
as war, nuclear accidents and earthquakes. Others are major changes in life of
an individual – for instance, moving to a new area, changing jobs, getting
married, losing a friend suffering a serious illness. Everyday hassles can also
be experienced as stressors – getting struct in traffic, arguing with
professor, losing your wallet. They only last a short time. Other stressors are
chronic: They go on for an extended period, even indefinitely, as when you are
in an unsatisfying marriage. Over time, chronic stress can lead to severe
health problems. Finally, the source of stress can also be within the
individual, in the form of conflicting motives and desires.
Events that are perceived as
stressful usually fall into one or more of the following categories, of course
the degree to which an event is stressful differs for each individual:
· Traumatic Events: The most obvious sources of stress
are traumatic events – situations of extreme danger that are outside the range
of usual human experience.
· Uncontrollable Events: The more uncontrollable an
event seems, the more likely it is to be perceived as stressful. Major
uncontrollable events include the death of a loved one etc. Minor
uncontrollable events include such things as having a friend refuse to accept
your apology for some misdeed etc.
· Unpredictable Events: Unpredictable events are also
often perceived as stressful. The degree to which we know if and when an event
will occur – also effects its stressfulness.
Being able to predict the occurrence of a stressful event – even if the
individual cannot control it – usually reduces the severity of the stress.
· Events that represent major changes in life
circumstances: Any life change that requires numerous readjustments can be
perceived as stressful. The following scale by Holmes and Rahe ranks life
events from most stressful to least stressful:
· Internal Conflicts: stress can also be brought about
by internal conflicts – unresolved issues that may be either conscious or
unconscious. Conflict occurs when a person must choose between incompatible, or
mutually exclusive goals or courses. Many of the things people desire prove to
be incompatible, hence cause stress.
Conflicts may also arise when
two inner needs or motives are in opposition. In our society, the conflicts that
are most pervasive and difficult to resolve generally occur between the
DEPENDENCE: Particularly when we are faced with a difficult situation, we may
want someone to take care of us and solve our problems. But we are taught that
we must stand on our own. At other times
we may wish for independence, but circumstances force us to remain dependent.
INTIMACY VERSUS ISOLATION:
The desire to be close to another person and to share our innermost thoughts
and emotions may conflict with the fear of being hurt or rejected if we expose
too much of ourselves.
COMPETITON: Our society emphasizes competition and success. Competition begins
in early childhood among siblings, continues through school, and culminates in
business and professional rivalry. At the same time, we are urged to cooperate
and to help others.
EXPRESSION OF IMPULSES VERSUS
MORAL SSTANDARDS: Impulses must be regulated to some degree in all societies.
Much of childhood learning involves internalizing cultural restrictions on
impulses. Sex and aggression are two areas in which our impulses frequently
come into conflict with moral standards and violation of these standards can
generate feelings of guilt.
These four areas present the
greatest potential for serious conflict. Trying to find a workable compromise
between opposing motives can create considerable stress.
Signs and symptoms of stress overload
The most dangerous thing
about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It
starts to feel familiar — even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting
you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of
the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.
· Depression or general unhappiness
· Anxiety and agitation
· Moodiness, irritability, or anger
· Feeling overwhelmed
· Loneliness and isolation
· Other mental or emotional health problems
Inability to concentrate
Seeing only the negative
Anxious or racing thoughts
· Aches and pains
· Diarrhea or constipation
· Nausea, dizziness
· Chest pain, rapid heart rate
· Loss of sex drive
· Frequent colds or flu
· Eating more or less
· Sleeping too much or too little
· Withdrawing from others
· Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
· Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
· Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
PSYCHOLOGICAL REACTIONS TO STRESS
Stressful situations produce
emotional reactions ranging from exhilaration to anxiety, anger, discouragement
The most common response to
stressor is anxiety. People who live through events that are beyond normal
range of human suffering (rape, kidnapping) sometimes develop a severe set of
anxiety-related symptoms known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There are four sets of
symptoms of PTSD. The first set represents a deep detachment from everyday
life. The second set is a repeated reliving of the trauma. The third set of
symptoms includes sleep disturbances, difficulty in concentrating and over
alertness. Another symptom of PTSD beside these three core sets is survivor of
guilt – some people feel terribly guilty about surviving a trauma.
Traumas caused by humans, such
as sexual or physical assault, are more likely to cause PTSD than natural
Anger and Aggression
Another common reaction to a
stressful situation is anger, which may lead to aggression. People often become
angry and exhibit aggressive behavior when they experience frustration.
Apathy and Depression
Although aggression is a
frequent response to stress, the opposite response, withdrawal and apathy, is
also common. If the stressful conditions continue and the individual is unable
to cope with them, apathy may deepen into depression. Some people suffering
from apathy or depression develop learned helplessness, which is characterized
by passivity and inaction and an inability to see opportunities to control
their environment. For example, women whose husbands beat them frequently may
not try to escape.
COGNITIVE REACTIONS TO STRESS
In addition to emotional
reactions, people often show substantial cognitive impairment when faced with
serious stressors. They find it hard to concentrate and to organize their
thought logically. They may be easily distracted. They may be easily
distracted. As a result, their performance on tasks, particularly complex
tasks, tends to deteriorate.
PHYSIOLOGICAL REACTIONS TO STRESS
The body reacts to stressors
by initiating a complex sequence of responses. If the perceived threat is
resolved quickly, these emergency responses subside, but if the stressful
situation continues, a different set of internal responses occur as we attempt
Fight-or-flight response: what happens in the body
The body reacts to stress
with the fight-or-flight response. When
you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of
stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for
emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure
rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes
increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your
focus—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.
How stress affects health?
The attempts to adapt to the
continued presence of stressors may deplete the body resources and make it
vulnerable to illness.
Chronic stress can lead to
physical disorders such as ulcers, high blood pressure and heart disease. It
may also impair the immune system, decreasing the body’s ability to fight
invading bacteria and viruses. Indeed, doctors estimate that emotional stress
plays an important role in more than half of all medical problems.
When we are stressed we are
more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, and this may lead to
illness. Engaging in unhealthy behaviors
may also increase a person’s subjective sense of stress. People under stress cease
normal exercise routine. Excessive drinking or smoking may also induce
lethargy, fatigue, and a mild or moderate sense of depression that makes it
difficult to overcome stressful situations or just keep up with the demands of
everyday life. Similarly, people who do not get enough sleep show impairments
in memory, learning, logical reasoning, arithmetic skills, complex verbal
processing and decision making.
The emotions and
physiological arousal created by stressful situations are highly uncomfortable,
and this discomfort motivate the individual to do something to alleviate it.
The term coping is used to refer to the process by which a person attempts to
manage stressful demands, and it takes two major forms.
A person can focus on the
specific problem or situation that has arisen, trying to find some way of
changing it or avoiding it in the future. This is called problem-focused
coping. Problem focused strategies aim
to remove or reduce the cause of the stressor.
There are many strategies for
solving problems. First, you must define the problem. Then you can generate
alternate solutions and weigh the costs and benefits of the alternatives. Eventually,
you must choose between alternative solutions and then act upon your choice. Problem-focused
strategies can also be directed inward: You can change something about yourself
instead of changing the environment. You can change your goals, find
alternative sources of gratification, or learn new skills in inward direct strategies.
How skillfully people employ these strategies depends on their range of
experiences and capacity for self-control.
A person can also focus on alleviating
the emotions associated with the stressful situation, even if the situation itself
cannot be changed. This is called emotion-focused coping. People engage in
emotion-focused coping to prevent their negative emotions from overwhelming
them and making them unable to take action to solve their problems. They also
use emotion-focused coping when a problem is uncontrollable.
We try to cope with our
negative emotions in many ways. Some researchers have divided these into
behavioral strategies and cognitive strategies. Behavioral strategies include
engaging in physical exercise, using drugs, venting anger, and seeking
emotional support from friends. Cognitive strategies include temporarily
setting the problem aside (“I decided it wasn’t worth worrying about”) and
reducing the threat by changing the meaning of the situation (“I decided that
her friendship wasn’t that important to me”). Cognitive strategies often involve
reappraising the situation. Obviously, we would expect some behavioral and
cognitive strategies to be adaptive and others (such as drinking heavily) to merely
cause more stress.
One strategy that appears to
help people adjust emotionally and physically to a stressor is seeking
emotional support from others. The quality of social support a person receives after
experiencing a trauma strongly influences the impact of that support on the
individual’s health. Conflicted social relationships may affect physical health
through the immune system.
Some people engage in more
maladaptive way of coping with negative emotions: They simply deny that they
have any negative emotions and push those emotions out of conscious awareness,
a strategy known as repressive coping. People who engage in repressive coping
tend to show more autonomic nervous activity in response to stressors than
people who do not engage in repressive coping. Repressing important aspects of
one’s identity may also be harmful to one’s health.
In contrast, talking about negative
emotions and important issues in one’s life appears to have positive effects on
health. Studies show that encouraging people to reveal personal traumas in diaries
or essays improves their health. Writing is helpful because it assists people in
finding meaning in the events that happen to them and helps them understand
them. Finding meaning and understanding then reduces the negative emotions
people feel about events and may therefore reduce the physiological wear and tear
associated with chronic negative emotions.
People who use rumination or
avoidance strategies to cope with negative emotions show longer and more severe
distress after negative events than people who seek social support or
reappraise an event to cope with their emotions.
However, A meta-analysis
revealed emotion-focused strategies are often less effective than using
problem-focused methods in relation to health outcomes. People who take active
steps to solve problems are less likely to experience depression and illness
following negative life events.
In addition to seeking
positive social support in times of stress, people can also learn other
techniques to reduce the negative effect of stress on the body and the mind.
Following are some behavioral and cognitive techniques to manage stress:
Among the behavioral
techniques that help people control their psychological responses to stressful
situations are biofeedback, relaxation training, meditation and aerobic
In biofeedback training, individuals receive information about an aspect of
their physiological state and then attempt to alter that state. For example, in
a procedure for learning to control tension headaches, electrodes are attached
to the participants forehead so that any movement in the forehead muscle can be
electronically detected, amplified and fed back to the person as an auditory
signal. The signal, or tone increases in pitch when the muscle contracts and
decreases when it relaxes. By learning to control the pitch of the tone, the individual
learns to keep the muscles relaxed. After 4 to 8 weeks of biofeedback training,
the participant learns to recognize the on set of tension and to reduce it
without feedback from the machine.
Relaxation Training: Relaxation training involves teaching people
techniques to deeply relax their muscles and slow down and focus their
thoughts. Physiological processes that are controlled by the autonomic nervous
system, such as heart rate and blood pressure, have traditionally been assumed
to be automatic and not under voluntary control. However, laboratory studies
have demonstrated that people can learn to modify heart rate and blood pressure.
The results of these studies have led to relaxation procedures for treating
patients with high blood pressures (hypertension).
Reviews of numerous studies
using biofeedback and relaxation training to control headaches and hypertension
conclude that the most important variable is learning how to relax. Some people
may learn to relax faster when they receive biofeedback. Others may learn to
relax equally well when they receive training in muscle relaxation without any
specific biofeedback. The usefulness of relaxation training seems to depend on
the individual. Best of all, anyone can reap these benefits with regular
Meditation can wipe away the day’s stress, bringing with it inner peace. Meditation
has been practiced for thousands of years. Meditation originally was meant to
help deepen understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life. These
days, meditation is commonly used for relaxation and stress reduction. It is
considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine. It can produce a deep
state of relaxation and a tranquil mind.
During meditation, you focus
your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be
crowding your mind and causing stress. This process may result in enhanced
physical and emotional well-being.
However, a leading researcher
in this field contends that the same effects can be achieved through simple
rest. Resting may produce stress-reduction effects similar to those produced by
Exercise: Another factor that is important in controlling stress
is physical fitness. Individuals who regularly engage in aerobic exercise show
significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure in response to stressful
situations than others. Physically fit people are much less likely to become physically
ill following stressful events than people who are not fit.
An additional approach to
stress management focuses on changing the individual’s cognitive response to
stressful situations. Cognitive-behavioral therapists use cognitive techniques
to help people reduce their stress and deal with mental health problems such as
depression and anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a short-term therapy
that focuses on how people’s thoughts affect their emotions and behaviors.
Understanding this concept helps people learn how to combat negative thinking
and decrease stress.
training, exercise, meditation, and cognitive therapy have all proved useful in
helping people control their physiological and emotional responses to stress.
Finally, Techniques for
stress management can also be gained from self-help books, online resources, or
by attending a stress management course. A counselor or psychotherapist can
connect an individual who has stress with personal development courses or
individual and group therapy sessions. ALL THE BEST!
“Happiness is a choice. You
can choose to be happy. There’s going to be stress in life, but it’s your
choice whether you let it affect you or not.”