Have you ever found yourself
in a situation where your to-do list seems endless, deadlines are fast
approaching and you find yourself saying ‘Eek! I feel stressed!’? But what is
stress really, and how does it affect us?
WHAT IS STRESS?
If you were to ask a dozen
people 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 agrees on, what is stressful for one person may be pleasurable or have
little effect 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 responses.
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 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
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.