What Is Stress?


What is it?

We All Experience Stress

Everyone has experienced stress at some time and we certainly all know when we are experiencing it.

Jobs are stressful when we are overworked or in fear of being laid-off.
School is stressful when we have too much studying and too little time.
Family life is stressful when family members don’t help out or argue.
Stress makes us feel irritable, gives us stomach aches, makes it difficult to sleep.

But even though we all intuitively know what stress is, defining it is quite difficult.

It’s How You Perceive a Situation That Makes It Stressful

Often researchers define stress as the psychological and physiological conditions that a person experiences when they perceive a situation as threatening, harmful, or demanding. This means that whenever we experience a change in our environment, we may experience stress. Whether we do or not depends on how we perceive the event. So what is stressful for one person might not be for another. Many factors influence how you interpret events including:

Who you are
Your attitudes
Your skills
Your personality
The current situation
Other events in your life
Other people in your life

Stress Isn’t All Bad!

Having some stress in your life is a good thing– it keeps your body and mind active and more alert. It’s only when you have too much stress (i.e., more than you can cope with) that stress can cause harmful effects.

Symptoms of Stress


When you are experiencing stress you may:

feel like you have too much to do and not enough time.
feel crazy.
get a stomachache or heartburn.
neglect your responsibilities or not enjoy what you usually like.
have tense muscles.
get irritable.
eat poorly.
use drugs carelessly or recreationally.
get sick often.
have problems sleeping.

How Much Do You Think You Can Control?

How Effective You Think You Are

Imagine that two people were thrown into the water. One is a lifeguard and the other doesn’t know how to swim. The lifeguard has the resources to handle being thrown in the water and can effectively cope with it. The person who never learned to swim is extremely upset, feels out of control, and has no idea how to cope with his problem.

In this situation the lifeguard can effectively handle her situation whereas the other person cannot. Our belief about how effective we are is called self efficacy. People’s self efficacy helps to determine their emotional reaction and their coping in a stressful situation.

The more effective people think that they are, the less upset they are and the better they cope. People feel that they can fix their problems and tend to not get as upset if they’re upset if they fail.
Amount of Control

Everyone has their own beliefs about how much they control in the world and how much outside factors control them. These judgments are important because when we feel things are out of our control, they are more stressful. Researchers often describe our judgments about how much we control with these three measures. Everyone can be described by all three categories. For instance you might be internal, global, and stable.

These three measures quantify a lot about how different people view their worlds. For instance:

When a bad thing happens, do you figure that this will just be a bad day?
Do you succeed because you are smart? Lucky this time? Or because things just happened to work out?
Do you fail because you are stupid? Because life is unfair?

The decisions we make about how much we control greatly affects how we think and feel. In short, we truly do create our own realities. If we think that the world is awful and unfair, it is. If we think we’re lucky, we are. Our perceptions are based on the world around us, so often there is a relationship between our perceptions and what is happening to us.

Still our perceptions are not always accurate. Healthy people tend to think that they are more effective than they actually are compared to other people. (whereas depressed people tend to think that they are worse and make negative internal, stable, and global judgments about the world.) But the benefit to thinking you are more effective than you actually are is that you are more likely to take try hard, to take risks, and to succeed (which then reinforces the belief that you are effective.)

Learned Helplessness

But what if no matter what a person does, he or she truly can’t change his or her situation? That person develops what is called “learned helplessness”. These traits include:

lack of motivation or activity
sadness & listlessness
lack of hostility when hostility is warranted
cognitive problems

If the unchangeable situation continues, the person will begin to make attributions that everything is out of their control including:

what is happening to them is their fault (internal)
they can never change things (global)
their difficulties will continue (stable)

Then the helplessness becomes a self fulfilling prophecy because they give up. Learned helplessness has been used to explain the symptoms and high rates of depression found in people who have a lot of stress and very few ways to control it.

Stress Affects Our Well-being

Having some stress in our lives keeps us on our toes but when it becomes unmanageable, it can greatly affect how we think, feel, and act. Activities we formerly enjoyed become tasks we must complete in order to get to the next thing. We begin to feel tense, sad, or angry often. We may snap at our friends, family, or coworkers. We may get distracted from our work or not work as efficiently as usual.

Too much stress drains us. (For more specifics, see “What Happens When You Experience Prolonged Stress” and “How Stress Affects Our Bodies.”) When this happens, it is often helpful to give ourselves some time to relax when we can.

Stress Affects Our Bodies


Your Body Tries to Fight Stressor and Prevent and Heal Injury

When our bodies experience stress, they prepare both to fight and to prevent and heal injury.

To “rev” the body up, the hypothalamus activates the pituitary gland which releases ACTH. ACTH causes two types of chemical to released. The first type is catecholamines. These chemicals activate other chemicals such as epinephrine and norepinephrine which make the body more “aroused.” Epinephrine is the substance that is commonly refered to as adrenaline The chain of events makes our heart rate increase and makes us feel more energetic and alert.

To help heal injury, the second kind of chemical, corticosteriods, resist the negative effects of stress. (e.g., one corticosteriod, cortisol, decreases swelling that occurs when the body is injured.)

When our bodies experience too much stress, our health is affected too.

Stress Affects Our Health

Stress Can Weaken our Cardiovascular System

Stress can weaken our cardiovascular system in two ways. When our heart rate is increased, sometimes it may beat very quickly. In more extreme cases and especially for people with cardiovascular disease, this can cause damage to the heart.

Many people experience a small change blood pressure during stressful times. When this happens to a greater extreme, it can be very dangerous. Often people who have extreme changes in blood pressure due to stress have other physical problems that aggravate their blood pressure as well.

Stress Can Weaken the Immune System

Stress weakens the immune system. Many stressors have been found to decrease the amount of cells in the blood that fight infection. For instance, some of the chemicals described in “How Stress Affects Our Bodies”, decrease the amount of cells in the blood that fight infection.

When our immunities are weakened we are more susceptible to illnesses like the common cold, flu, and perhaps even more serious problems.

Stress is Associated with Anxiety & Depression

Stress makes us feel badly. In extreme cases, when stress is overwhelming, it can make us feel very badly. When this happens, people who are susceptible may become clinically depressed or anxious. One way to view this process is through a concept called learned helplessness.

How People Evaluate Situations

Whenever we experience an event that might be stressful, we always go through a similar procedure. First we check if the event is threatening or challenging; this process is called the primary appraisal. Primary appraisal includes:

deciding if the situation is threatening
evaluating resources
choosing what to do (deciding how to cope)

After we do something to limit the impact of the stressor, we check to see if our attempt worked; this process is called the secondary appraisal.

We continue to appraise the situation until we decide its not stressful anymore. As we experience a stressful event, the stress affects our body and feelings and sometimes also our health and relationships with others.

What Happens When You Experience Prolonged Stress

The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) was developed by Han Seyle beginning in the 1930’s and established in the 1950’s. He proposed that all animals including people going through the same three stages whenever they experience prolonged stress.

Our bodies have ways to deal with stress, but they also have limited resources and energy. Thus, if stress continues for too long, our bodies become exhausted. We don’t necessarily go through all three stages; in most cases the stress ends before we reach the exhaustion stage.

General Adaptation Syndrome

Alarm stage

The body prepares to fight.

Many of the stress-related illnesses such as heart problems or ulcers correspond to the alarm stage. Hormones are released that cause various changes in the body. (ACTH cause chemicals to be released which combat the effects of stress, e.g., cortisol which reduces swelling. Norepinephrine and epinephrine cause general arousal including to rise and heart rate to increase.)

Resistance stage

The body adapts.

Occurs when the stress continues. Animal appears “normal” again though the physiological changes that occur in the first stage continue but lessen. Some physiological problems diminish (e.g., if weight was lost, it is often restored.)

Exhaustion stage

The body wears itself out

Eventually the body runs out of resources. The body can no longer maintain the physiological changes, the immune system weakens, the symptoms of the first stage reappear, diseases, and even death may occur.

When Stress is Overwhelming

When our lives are too stressful, more serious things can occur such as:

Frequent or long term physical illnesses including colds, flu, high blood pressure
Hair loss
Shortness of breath
Heart palpitations
Changes in appetite or weight
Extreme sleeplessness
Beginning or increased drug use, including alcohol

For some people at higher risk, extreme stress could help to cause serious cardiovascular or other problems, e.g., heart attacks.

When stress is overwhelming it’s incredibly easy to ignore because we can become wrapped up in everything we need to do to make the stress go away. But sometimes in cases like these we run around trying to do everything and accomplishing nothing because we are just too stressed.

It’s always a good idea to give yourself some time to relax, but this need becomes critical when we are faced with a lot of stress. Otherwise we could face feeling worse and experiencing more serious health risks. Ironically, this is the time many of us are least like to take care of ourselves.

If you are in a situation in which you are too stressed, give yourself some time to unwind. Do something that you enjoy that is relaxing:

Talk a walk.
Talk with a friend.
Listen to peaceful music.
Try a relaxation technique.
Take a soothing bath.
Do absolutely nothing.

What Is Social Support?


Simply put, social support is the help we get from other people. There are four basic kinds of social support:

emotional support (e.g., comforting a friend after a difficult relationship break-up)
financial or material help (e.g., giving a neighbor clothes and household necessities after a house fire)
advice or information (e.g., helping a sister to decide what to major in)
assistance (e.g., driving a parent to the doctor)

We get our social support from our social network. It doesn’t matter how big the social network is. Rather it is the quality of the social network that determines how helpful it is. After all, you can know everyone in town and not have a single person you feel comfortable confiding in or asking favors from.
How Does It Help?

Some researchers think that social support acts as a buffer between a person and what is stressful for them. This means that social support is particularly helpful during times of stress. For example, if you were having a bad day and you complained to a friend, you might feel better or think about your problems in a different way.

Other researchers think that social support works directly because a.) support itself makes people feel like they belong b.) people with social support have other people to care for them so that they eat well, exercise, go to the doctor, etc.

The Physical and Psychological Benefits of Social Support

Now you know that social support can make you feel better, help you think through problems better, and might even help you pay your rent when money is tight! Social support is often thought to be beneficial to health. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that socially isolated people have worse psychological and physical health, and even higher death rates! Since social support acts as a buffer and stress is a factor in many illnesses, good social support may make you more likely to be healthy. For example, social support may be helpful for cardiovascular disease and immune system functioning.

No one is an Island

No man, or woman for that matter, is an island. Most people feel better when they have other people around who love, support, and help them. When people are feeling stressed out, it often helps to turn to a friend or loved one for support.

Sometimes just talking can be enough. Sometimes others can help you see your situation in a new light. Friends, families, and loved ones are often the people who remind us to exercise or drive us to the doctor. Besides helping us directly, they help us to take care of ourselves.

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques can be a useful way to help yourself feel better when you are depressed, stressed out, or angry. To try a relaxation technique on your own, simply follow one of these sets of directions.

Mental Imagery Relaxation

As you focus on your mental image more and more, you direct your attention away from anxiety provoking situations.

Close your eyes.
Breathe deeply and slowly.
Think of a place where you feel entirely safe and comfortable. Your place should be real, such as a childhood tree fort or a waterfall you once visited. It could be imagined, like a lush deserted island or in a castle high above the clouds.
What does that place look like? What sorts of things are in your special place?
What does that place sound like?
Breathe deeply.
Does your place have a particular smell? Imagine that smell.
What does your place feel like? What is the temperature? Is it sunny or dark? Humid or dry?
Your special place will always be somewhere you can go whenever you are scared or sad. You can also go there to simply relax.

Physical Relaxation

By learning to relax your body, you can concentrate on feeling good and dealing with unpleasant emotions and experiences.

Sit or lay comfortably.
Close your eyes.
Breathe slowly and deeply
Concentrate on feeling the air move in and out of your body
Concentrate on your toes. Relax them. Feel all the tension leave your toes, one by one.
Feel yourself breathe slowly and deeply.
Relax your feet. All the tension in your feel is disappearing.
Now the tension in your calves in disappearing.
You are breathing deeply.
A soothing feeling is rising through your legs through your knees to your thighs.
You legs are completely relaxed and free of tension.
Breathe deeply. Feel the air glide through you.
Now your pelvis is relaxing. The muscles are growing free of tension.
The soothing feeling is moving through your buttocks. Feel your buttocks relax.
The muscles in your belly relax now.
Feel yourself breathing deeply as the tension in the lower half of your body disappears.
Now the tension in your back begins to disappear starting from the bottom and working upwards.
The soothing feeling wraps around your chest and neck and extends down your arms.
All tension leaves your arms and hands. You are feeling very relaxed now.
All the while you are breathing deeply.
All the muscles in your neck relax.
Then the soothing feeling moves through your face.
All of your facial muscles relax as you breathe deeply and feel the tension disappearing from your body.
You are now completely relaxed. Your body and mind feel free and without tension. All of the bad feelings are gone.

It’s easy forget about the resources we have in the people around us. When you are feeling stressed, you may want to stop and consider who is out there who might be able to help.