The Most Important Things You Need To Know About Stress

Posted on September 17th, 2013

Image by Crashmaster007

Stress is physiological and a psychological reaction to something that is a perceived as a threat. Stress response mobilizes energy in the body to ensure survival. From the survival perspective, stress response helps ensure that you can run away from a lion or defeat an enemy. However, people don’t live in caves anymore and in the modern world, stress is a failure to respond appropriately to psychological, emotional or physical threats whether they are real or imagined.

Under stress, people shift to the survival mentality and often fall back to their comfort zone. They stop exploring new possibilities and tend to stay away from future oriented thinking that might involve uncertainty.

The biggest misconception that people have is that stress is bad. Stress is neither good nor bad, it is just a type of response that helps you adapt to the demands of the environment. However, lack of coping and energy management skills are the bad things that can lead to mental, emotional and health problems.

Eustress vs. Distress

Eustress is a type of stress that occurs in a short period of time and can actually be beneficial.1 The word eustress consists of two parts, “eu” in Greek means either “well” or “good.” Thus, eustress means “good stress”. Short-term acute stress can occur during strength training or challenging work and enhance your physical and mental functions.2

Distress or prolonged stress is a type of stress that occurs over a long period of time and can be destructive physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Distress can lead to anxiety and depression as well as disrupt homeostasis (balance) in the body, which can result in health problems.

Prolonged stress can deplete the energy in the body to the point where the body’s immune system and other vital processes begin to malfunction and long-term damages leading to serious health problems can occur. Prolonged stress can cause the receptors in the brain to begin to overestimate fear in the environment and become desensitized to pleasure and happiness.

Your perception of the problem determines the kind of stress reaction that you will have. Potentially stressful situation requires that you make a mental assessment of the demands associated with the problem, your coping resources, and the consequences. If you think that the demands exceed your personal resources needed to resolve the problem, the stress response will be significant.

If you think that your coping resources outweigh the demands, the stress response will be minimal. You can think of the stress response as a perceived imbalance between your coping resources, how hard you think the problem is, and the actual demands of the problem.

Modern Sources of Stress

Image by Alan Cleaver

A stressor is anything that disrupts the emotional balance in the body. Most of the stress comes from the demands of the environment (work, family, social) that are greater than your current level of coping skills.

Nowadays, many people don’t know how to stop and renew their energy, they are very familiar with what stress feels like but they have forgotten what mindfulness, relaxation, and calmness feel like. The body is very adaptable and it will help you adapt to the demands of your environment but the price you pay is your health. Although, you may not feel tired, your body may be experiencing a teardown. Modern sources of stress include:

  • Constant demands from the environment including interruptions and distractions
  • Inability to stop and enjoy the present moment
  • Traffic tie-ups double the time it takes for you to get to work
  • Complicated home repairs you haven’t gotten around to making
  • Troublesome thoughts about your work, family, and the future
  • Recurring bad memories
  • Worries about international events, economy, and environment
  • Frequent experience of negative thoughts and emotions
  • Bad nutrition, toxins, and microbes
  • Socia stress

Workplace Stress

Workplace stress is one of the most common sources of stress where performance demands constantly increase and the time give to complete these demands decreases. A harmful emotional and physical response occurs when there is a mismatch between the demands of the job and your capabilities, skills, resources, or needs.

Causes Of Stress At Work

  • Excessively high workloads, with unrealistic deadlines making people feel rushed, under pressure and overwhelmed
  • Insufficient workloads, making people feel that their skills are being underused
  • Lack of control over work activities
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Lack of interpersonal support or poor working relationships leading to a sense of isolation
  • People being asked to do a job which they have insufficient experience or training

Signs of Stress

  • Tiredness and irritability
  • Physical illness such as headaches, nausea, aches and pains
  • Reduce performance, motivation, and quality of work
  • Seeming jumpy or ill-at-ease, or admitting to sleeping badly
  • Indecisiveness and poor judgement
  • Increases sick leave
  • Loss of sense of humor and apathy

Benefits of Stress

Stress can help you rise to challenges and reveal your hidden abilities that can even change or improve what you think about yourself. When you overcome challenges in life and realize that you are much stronger than you previously thought, you can gain the confidence needed to face future challenges.3

Stress can actually improve your relationships. Adversity can often separate fair-weather friends from true friends. It can also strengthens relationships and opens people’s hearts to one another.

Stress can help you become more mindful. A trauma has the ability to change people’s priorities in life. It can shift their philosophies to the present and help them realize that life is a gift that they have been taking for granted and that people matter more than money.

Mild stress causes release of stress hormones, including epinephrine and glucocorticoids, which can actually be good for your memory. This means that moderately stressful situations can help you improve recall (taking a test) as well as initial learning.4

Stress Response

When you experience stress, you experience change in how you think, feel, behave as well as how your body reacts.

How you think - your thoughts will be constantly worrying, distract you, race around in your head, and make you imagine the worst outcome. Your attention shifts from automatic mode to controlled processing mode resulting in too much thinking.5

How you feel - you may feel anxious, nervous, stressed, scared that something bad is going to happen leading to panic. Once you begin to panic, you and shift to your instinct shut off logical thinking.

How you behave - you walk back and forth, become quiet or talk quickly, become cranky and upset, lose your appetite, and do what we can to avoid what we fear.

How your body reacts - your heart races, your chest tightens and hurts, your stomach may get upset, we sweat, tense your muscles, and your breathing will quicken.

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How The Body Respond To Stress

Physiological arousal during stress increases the heart rate, blood pressure, slows down digestion and decreases the blood flow to vital organs. Stress also has a negative influence on sleep because of the adrenaline hormones circulating in the body, which keep the person alert and vigilant. Stress response can be characterized by a general adaptation syndrome:

  1. Alarm - stressor is identified (problem at work, relationship issue, financial problems). You body then produces adrenaline and activates a fight or flight response.

  2. Resistance - an attempt to cope with stress and adapt to the environmental strains and demands. However, your body can’t keep up forever because it has limited resources that gradually deplete.

  3. Exhaustion - once your energy resources are depleted and you can’t handle the stress any longer, you begin to experience exhaustion. If you continue to feel exhausted without taking action to resolve your problems, you may experience long-term damage to your body that can eventually lead to mental of physical problems.

Fight or Flight Response

Fight or flight response is a combination of biological, psychological, and physiological changes in your body that hep you survive a potential threat (real or imagined). You can fight or flight (run away).

Stress chemicals that flood your body include glucocorticoid, epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, and adrenaline. The primary purpose of these chemicals is to help your adapt to the demands of the environment and cope with the stressor. Some of the functions of these stress hormones include:

  • Mobilize energy from storage to muscles
  • Increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate
  • Shut down metabolic processes (food digestion)
  • Digestion reproduction growth immunity
  • Increases in blood glucose level provides energy to the brain, lungs, and leg muscles
  • Blood pressure and heart rate increase to better supply nutrients to the muscles
  • Respiration increases so that more oxygen reaches the brain

Studies of soldier training for parachute jumps revealed that a number of changes occur in the body during a stressful experience. Organs affected by stress include: thyroid, heart, liver, pancreas, spleen, adrenal gland, intestines, bladder, and testes.6 Prolonged presence of these chemicals in your body can lead to: 7

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Suppression of the immune system and increased likelihood of infectious diseases
  • Health problems and slower healing
  • Depletion of energy storage
  • Digestion problems (ulcers)
  • Irregular menstrual cycles in females
  • Decrease in testosterone levels in males (impotency)
  • Fatigue and apathy
  • Bone Decalcification
  • Neural degeneration which causes accelerated aging
  • Impotency - libido Loss

Burnout And The Consequences of Prolonged Stress

Burnout occurs when a person feels emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted most of the time. A person doesn’t feel joy anymore and just wants to be left alone. People who experience burnout also experience inner emptiness. To overcome the feelings of emptiness, they might look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs, which can lead to even bigger problems.

Chronic high levels of stress can reduce recall of previously learned information. Long-term exposure to high levels of stress can even cause death of the neurons in the brain, which can lead to permanent memory impairment. This is one of the reasons why many people say that they don’t have a “good memory” when they are stressed.

Prolonged stress (distress) can lead to psychosomatic illness such as stomach ulcers, head-aches, backaches, muscles aches, disturbed heart function, respiratory difficulties, bronchitis, asthma, and many other problems.8 Hight blood pressures causes the blood to diverted from nonessential areas such as your gut and into your muscles. Chronic stress constantly activates your stress-response system, which can damage your heart muscles and blood vessels.9

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Although, chronic stress affects men and women in different ways, both men and women experience decreased sex drive (libido). Sustained stress can decrease the likelihood of ovulation and increase erectile dysfunction. Your immune system is designed to protect you from all sorts of viruses and bacteria. When it is repeatedly hit with stress, immune defenses go down, viruses and bacteria begin to prosper, and the person gets sick.

Physical signs of burnout

Sleep problems, colds and respiratory infections, weight problems, loss of sex drive, chest pain, shortness of breath, stomach pain, frequent headaches, chronic fatigue, gynecological problems, impotence, constant biting nails.

Psychological signs of burnout

Loss of joy in activities once enjoyed, sadness, loss of motivation, excessive negative thoughts or worry, anxiety, panic attacks, feeling trapped without options for relief or escape, loss of concentration, emotional irritation at simple things in life, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or pessimism, inability to concentrate, loss of interest in life, continuous expectation of failure, frustration, or anger.

Behavioral signs of burnout

Loss of appetite or overrating, increased use of alcohol or drugs, poor productivity, social isolation, piling of uncompleted work.

How To Overcome Stress and Burnout

According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are:10

  • Exercising or playing sports
  • Praying or attending a religious service
  • Reading
  • Listening to music
  • Spending time with friends or family
  • Getting a massage
  • Going outside for a walk
  • Meditating or doing yoga
  • Spending time with a creative hobby

The Least Effective Strategies Are

  • Eating
  • Playing video games
  • Surfing the Internet
  • Watching TV or movies for more than two hours
  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Smoking or drinking

  1. Fevre, Mark Le; Kolt, Gregory S., Matheny, Jonathan (1 January 2006). “Eustress, distress and their interpretation in primary and secondary occupational stress management interventions: which way first?”. Journal of Managerial Psychology 21(6): 547–565. doi:10.1108/02683940610684391 

  2. Nelson, Debra; Cooper, Cary (1 April 2005). “Stress and health: A positive direction”. Stress and Health 21(2): 73–75. doi:10.1002/smi.1053 

  3. Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books. 

  4. Gluck, M. A., Mercado, E., & Myers, C. E. (2008). Learning and memory: from brain to behavior. New York: Worth Publishers. 

  5. Cox, R. H. (2007). Sport psychology: concepts and applications (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill. 

  6. Pinel, J. P. (2007). Basics of biopsychology. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon. 

  7. Breedlove, S. M., Watson, N. V., & Rosenzweig, M. R. (2010). Biological psychology: an introduction to behavioral, cognitive, and clinical neuroscience (6th ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc. Publishers. 

  8. Rossi, E. L., & Nimmons, D. (1991). The 20-minute break: reduce stress, maximize performance, and improve health and emotional well-being using the new science of ultradian rhythms. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher. 

  9. Dispenza, J. (2007). Evolve your brain: the science of changing your mind. Dearfield, FL: Health Communications. 

  10. McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: how self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery. 

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