Stress is the body’s physical and psychological response to a specific demand made of us or to an event in our life. In some cases it motivates and encourages us to complete a task we find difficult so that we can take pride in ourselves and what we achieve.
Stress is the body’s physical and psychological response to a specific demand made of us or to an
event in our life. In some cases it motivates and encourages us to complete a task we find difficult
so that we can take pride in ourselves and what we achieve.
Researchers define stress as a physical, mental, or emotional response to events that causes bodily
or mental tension. Simply put, stress is any outside force or event that has an effect on our body or
mind. Stress is a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc. It is
something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety. Most of the factors that cause stress are
external, that is they come from the outside world. This can include things such as job pressures,
family life, relationships, physical illnesses and major events that happen to you or your loved
ones. The list of stress factors really is quite endless.
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. 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.
This is known as the “fight or flight” stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you.
When working properly, stress helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency
situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or
spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
Physiological or biological stress is an organism's response to a stressor such as an environmental
condition or a stimulus. Stress is a body's method of reacting to a challenge. According to the
stressful event, the body's way to respond to stress is by sympathetic nervous system activation
which results in the fight-or-flight response. Because the body cannot keep this state for long
periods of time, the parasympathetic system returns the body's physiological conditions to normal
(homeostasis). In humans, stress typically describes a negative condition or a positive condition
that can have an impact on a person's mental and physical well-being.
Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a
presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free
throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you'd rather be watching TV. But beyond your
comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and
TYPES OF STRESSORS
Situations that are considered stress provoking are known as stressors. Stress is not always a bad
thing. Stress is simply the body’s response to changes that create taxing demands. Many
professionals suggest that there is a difference between what we perceive as positive stress, and
distress, which refers to negative stress. In daily life, we often use the term “stress” to describe
negative situations. This leads many people to believe that all stress is bad for you, which is not
Positive stress has the following characteristics:
Motivates, focuses energy
Is perceived as within our coping abilities
In contrast, negative stress has the following characteristics:
Causes anxiety or concern
Can be short or long-term
Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
Can lead to mental and physical problems
It is somewhat hard to categorize stressors into objective lists of those that cause positive stress
and those that cause negative stress, because different people will have different perceptions and
reactions to particular situations. However, by generalizing, we can compile a list of stressors that
are typically experienced as negative or positive to most people, most of the time.
Examples of negative personal stressors can include: • The death of a partner • Filing for divorce
• Losing contact with loved ones • The death of a family member • Hospitalization (oneself or a
family member) • Injury or illness (oneself or a family member) • Being abused or neglected •
Separation from a spouse or committed relationship partner • Conﬂict in interpersonal relationships
• Bankruptcy/money problems • Unemployment • Sleep problems • Children’s problems at school
• Legal problems • Inadequate or substandard housing • Excessive job demands • Job insecurity •
Conﬂicts with team mates and supervisors • Lack of training necessary to do a job • Making
presentations in front of colleagues or clients • Unproductive and time-consuming meetings •
Commuting and travel schedules
Examples of positive personal stressors might include: • Receiving a promotion at work • Starting
a new job • Marriage or commitment ceremony • Buying a home • Having a child • Moving •
Taking or planning a vacation • Holiday seasons • Retiring • Taking educational classes or learning
a new hobby
CONNECTION BETWEEN STRESS AND ILLNESS
There is likely a connection between stress and illness. Theories of the stress–illness link suggest
that both acute and chronic stress can cause illness, and several studies found such a link.
According to these theories, both kinds of stress can lead to changes in behavior and in physiology.
Behavioral changes can be smoking and eating habits and physical activity. Physiological changes
can be changes in sympathetic activation or hypothalamic pituitary adrenocorticoid activation, and
immunological function. However, there is much variability in the link between stress and illness.
Stress can make the individual more susceptible to physical illnesses like the common cold.
Stressful events, such as job changes, may result in insomnia, impaired sleeping, and health
complaints. Research indicates the type of stressor (whether it's acute or chronic) and individual
characteristics such as age and physical well-being before the onset of the stressor can combine to
determine the effect of stress on an individual. An individual's personality characteristics (such as
level of neuroticism), genetics, and childhood experiences with major stressors and traumas may
also dictate their response to stressors.
Chronic stress and a lack of coping resources available or used by an individual can often lead to
the development of psychological issues such as depression and anxiety. This is particularly true
regarding chronic stressors. These are stressors that may not be as intense as an acute stressor like
a natural disaster or a major accident, but they persist over longer periods of time. These types of
stressors tend to have a more negative impact on health because they are sustained and thus require
the body's physiological response to occur daily. This depletes the body's energy more quickly and
usually occurs over long periods of time, especially when these micro stressors cannot be avoided
(i.e. stress of living in a dangerous neighborhood). For example, studies have found that caregivers,
particularly those of dementia patients, have higher levels of depression and slightly worse
physical health than non-caregivers.
Studies have also showed that perceived chronic stress and the hostility associated with Type A
personalities are often associated with much higher risks of cardiovascular disease. This occurs
because of the compromised immune system as well as the high levels of arousal in the sympathetic
nervous system that occur as part of the body's physiological response to stressful events.
EFFECTS OF STRESS OVERLOAD
The body’s autonomic nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily
stressors and life-threatening events. If you’re stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic
jam on your commute to work, or a mountain of bills, for example, your body can still react as if
you’re facing a life-or-death situation.
When you repeatedly experience the fight or flight stress response in your daily life, it can raise
blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up
the aging process and leave you vulnerable to a host of mental and emotional problems.
Many health problems are caused or exacerbated by stress, including:
•Pain of any kind
•Auto immune diseases
•Skin conditions, such as eczema
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF STRESS OVERLOAD
The following list contains some of the common warning signs and symptoms of chronic stress.
The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
•Inability to concentrate
•Seeing only the negative
•Anxious or racing thoughts
•Irritability or short temper
•Agitation, inability to relax
•Sense of loneliness and isolation
•Depression or general unhappiness
•Aches and pains
•Diarrhea or constipation
•Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
•Loss of sex drive
•Eating more or less
•Sleeping too much or too little
•Isolating yourself from others
•Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
•Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
•Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
TYPES OF STRESS
Stress management can be complicated and confusing because there are different types of stress
— acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress — each with its own characteristics,
symptoms, duration and treatment approaches. Let's look at each one.
Acute stress is the most common form of stress. It comes from demands and pressures of the recent
past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future. Acute stress is thrilling and exciting
in small doses, but too much is exhausting. A fast run down a challenging ski slope, for example,
is exhilarating early in the day. That same ski run late in the day is taxing and wearing. Skiing
beyond your limits can lead to falls and broken bones. By the same token, overdoing on short-term
stress can lead to psychological distress, tension headaches, upset stomach and other symptoms.
Fortunately, acute stress symptoms are recognized by most people. It's a laundry list of what has
gone awry in their lives: the auto accident that crumpled the car fender, the loss of an important
contract, a deadline they're rushing to meet, their child's occasional problems at school and so on.
Because it is short term, acute stress doesn't have enough time to do the extensive damage
associated with long-term stress. The most common symptoms are:
Emotional distress — some combination of anger or irritability, anxiety and depression,
the three stress emotions.
Muscular problems including tension headache, back pain, jaw pain and the muscular
tensions that lead to pulled muscles and tendon and ligament problems.
Stomach, gut and bowel problems such as heartburn, acid stomach, flatulence, diarrhea,
constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.
Transient over arousal leads to elevation in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms,
heart palpitations, dizziness, migraine headaches, cold hands or feet, shortness of breath
and chest pain.
Acute stress can crop up in anyone's life, and it is highly treatable and manageable.
Episodic acute stress
There are those, however, who suffer acute stress frequently, whose lives are so disordered that
they are studies in chaos and crisis. They're always in a rush, but always late. If something can go
wrong, it does. They take on too much, have too many irons in the fire, and can't organize the slew
of self-inflicted demands and pressures clamoring for their attention. They seem perpetually in the
clutches of acute stress.
It is common for people with acute stress reactions to be over aroused, short-tempered, irritable,
anxious and tense. Often, they describe themselves as having "a lot of nervous energy." Always in
a hurry, they tend to be abrupt, and sometimes their irritability comes across as hostility.
Interpersonal relationships deteriorate rapidly when others respond with real hostility. The
workplace becomes a very stressful place for them.
It occurs when one have an "excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience, and a
harrying sense of time urgency." In addition there is a "free-floating, but well-rationalized form of
hostility, and almost always a deep-seated insecurity." Such personality characteristics would seem
to create frequent episodes of acute stress for the individual. These people are to be much more
likely to develop coronary heat disease than those who show an opposite pattern of behavior.
Another form of episodic acute stress comes from ceaseless worry. "Worry warts" see disaster
around every corner and pessimistically forecast catastrophe in every situation. The world is a
dangerous, unrewarding, punitive place where something awful is always about to happen. These
"awfulizers" also tend to be over aroused and tense, but are more anxious and depressed than angry
The symptoms of episodic acute stress are the symptoms of extended over arousal: persistent
tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain and heart disease. Treating episodic acute
stress requires intervention on a number of levels, generally requiring professional help, which
may take many months.
Often, lifestyle and personality issues are so ingrained and habitual with these individuals that they
see nothing wrong with the way they conduct their lives. They blame their woes on other people
and external events. Frequently, they see their lifestyle, their patterns of interacting with others,
and their ways of perceiving the world as part and parcel of who and what they are.
Sufferers can be fiercely resistant to change. Only the promise of relief from pain and discomfort
of their symptoms can keep them in treatment and on track in their recovery program.
While acute stress can be thrilling and exciting, chronic stress is not. This is the grinding stress
that wears people away day after day, year after year. Chronic stress destroys bodies, minds and
lives. It wreaks havoc through long-term attrition. It's the stress of poverty, of dysfunctional
families, of being trapped in an unhappy marriage or in a despised job or career. It's the stress that
the never-ending "troubles" Chronic stress comes when a person never sees a way out of a
miserable situation. It's the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable
periods of time. With no hope, the individual gives up searching for solutions.
Some chronic stresses stem from traumatic, early childhood experiences that become internalized
and remain forever painful and present. Some experiences profoundly affect personality. A view
of the world, or a belief system, is created that causes unending stress for the individual. When
personality or deep-seated convictions and beliefs must be reformulated, recovery requires active
self-examination, often with professional help.
The worst aspect of chronic stress is that people get used to it. They forget it's there. People are
immediately aware of acute stress because it is new; they ignore chronic stress because it is old,
familiar, and sometimes, almost comfortable.
Chronic stress kills through suicide, violence, heart attack, stroke and, perhaps, even cancer.
People wear down to a final, fatal breakdown. Because physical and mental resources are depleted
through long-term attrition, the symptoms of chronic stress are difficult to treat and may require
extended medical as well as behavioral treatment and stress management.
Depending on the stressors and the types of changes or events we are dealing with, stress can
manifest itself physically, emotionally and/or mentally.
Physical – this occurs when the body as a whole starts to suffer as a result of a stressful situation.
Symptoms can manifest in a variety of ways and vary in their seriousness.
The most common physical symptom is headaches because stress causes people to unconscious ly
tense their neck, forehead and shoulder muscles. However long-term stress can lead to digestive
problems including ulcers, insomnia, fatigue, high blood pressure, nervousness and excessive
sweating, heart disease, strokes and even hair loss.
Emotional – these responses are due to stress affecting the mind and include anxiety, anger,
depression, irritability, frustration, over-reaction to everyday problems, memory loss and a lack of
concentration for any task.
Anxiety is normally shown as a response to loss, failure, danger or a fear of the unknown. Anger
is a common response to frustration or social stress and can become a danger to other individuals
if not kept in check. Depression is frequently seen as an emotional response to upsetting situations
such as the death of a loved one, illness and failure.
Psychological – long-term stress can cause psychological problems in some individuals.
Symptoms include withdrawal from society, phobias, compulsive behaviors, eating disorders and
SYMPTOMS OF STRESS
Over the last few decades people have become accustomed to high levels of stress, and so most
individuals do not consider it to be anything out of the ordinary. This can be a dangerous viewpoint
though, as prolonged stress can be detrimental to both our body and mind.
Physical Stress Symptoms
Stress causes our immune system to become weakened, which allows minor illnesses that
would not normally have an effect on us to really bring us down.
A simple cold can escalate into the flu or a lung infection. In addition, stress can cause
sleep problems and fatigue which can go on to produce mood swings and irritability.
Aches and pains, and especially headaches become more frequent, because stress causes
the involuntary contraction of the neck and shoulder muscles. Most of the time we don’t
even realise we are tensing our muscles until they begin to ache.
Stress also has a big effect on how our internal organs work. For example, the heart beats
faster and the blood pressure increases during a stressful period.
Long-term, this can result in strokes and some types of heart disease. The stomach is
another organ that suffers due to stress; ulcers and acid indigestion can not only cause
chronic pain but can lead to serious internal bleeding.
Mental/Emotional Symptoms of Stress
There are many emotional and psychological problems that result from stress, in addition
to the physical ones. Anger is one such problem especially, if the individual feels frustrated
or isolated by a stressful situation.
Minor problems such as unhappiness and impatience for things to get back to normal can
quickly grow into more serious problems, such as clinical depression and anxiety disorders.
These emotional problems can affect the people around the stressed person just as much as
they affect the person themselves.
Loved ones can get pushed away, and the stressed individual may withdraw from society
and their life in general.
Eventually friendships break down, and the individual becomes more stressed and
withdrawn because of their lack of social interaction; it’s a never-ending cycle.
Fortunately, society is waking up to the effects that stress can have on the population. Years
ago employers used to think you were weak and a bad employee if you had time of work
because you were suffering from stress, however today, many companies run stress
management courses for their workers so that they can effectively deal with the stresses of
their work life.
Similarly, employees used to consider themselves weak and inadequate if they could not
cope with their work load and daily life, but now many more people are owning up to
suffering from stress, and are being treated for it in a way that suit them.
Because of this, big companies that employ people to do highly-stressful jobs have begun
adding gyms and other leisure activity areas to the work place, so that employees can spend
time working out or just relaxing while at work.
Various American companies have reported that the productivity of their employees
increased when they introduced ‘stress-relief’ areas in the workplace. Big companies have
also found that by taking on more general assistants, it takes the pressure off highly stressed
employees, and so the amount of time that people have off sick due to stress decreased
Most people report that their job is the number one stress factor in their life. Many people
today are financially dependant on their chosen employment, and so feel that they need to
excel in order to ensure job stability.
However, this can have an adverse affect on job satisfaction, and if you don’t enjoy your
work you will become stressed whenever you are there. Working excessive hours or at the
weekend, and taking work home to finish are prime examples of how the workplace can
become a stressful environment.
Insurance companies are also starting to realize that the number of individuals claiming for
loss of earnings are doing so because of stress, and so are beginning to cover the costs of
stress reduction and stress management courses for individuals off work because of stress.
Even with these advances, it is still largely down to the individual to control the amount of
stress within their life. People need to recognize the symptoms of stress early, so that
changes can be made to remedy the problem. Small things such as leaving a bit of spare
time in their social diary to relax or spend time as a family will make a huge difference to
the individuals’ stress levels.
Regardless of what you do to try and reduce the amount of stress you are under, you will
never get rid of it completely, and in some ways this is a good thing. Stress can motivate
us to work hard and achieve what we want to achieve, but if we allow it to become out of
control it can cause serious problems.
The most common symptoms can include:
Headaches, other aches and pains
Sleep disturbance, insomnia
Upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhoea
Feeling overwhelmed and out of control
Feeling moody, tearful
Low self-esteem, lack of confidence
High blood pressure
Weakened immune system
CAUSES OF STRESS
For most of us, stress is a life factor that we have come to take for granted. We place significant
amounts of pressure on ourselves to perform, and we get the same sort of pressure from our jobs,
our families and events that take place in our lives.
Stress is often associated with situations you perceive as difficult to handle. When you feel that
your life is being “pushed” or “pulled” in different directions, then you are undergoing stress.
a. Daily Hassles Stress Causes
Stress can basically be put into two categories. The first is everyday stress. This is the stress created
by the demands of daily life, including our jobs, our families and our social life.
The most often cited everyday stressor is work. In today’s world of doing more with less,
employees find themselves with more work, fewer resources, and less time. We have tight
deadlines and a competitive work environment in which only the best performers are guaranteed
All of these factors add up to a very stressful work environment. We work longer hours, take work
home and worry about missing deadlines or performing inadequately.
Other everyday stressors can include family demands. Whether they are taking care of aging
parents or trying to raise children and maintain a home, our schedules are full of family activities
and school events.
Normal daily hassles such as too many things to do, juggling different responsibilities, time
pressure, traffic noise, job dissatisfaction, poor health, negative attitudes, relationship demands, or
financial problems can also cause significant stress. The stress that they create is because we must
face these hassles repeatedly on a daily basis.
Bills are due every month, and children place demands on us on a regular basis. These kinds of
demands can wear us down over time, if we don’t make significant effort to take a break now and
then, and practice stress management techniques to help recover from the stress.
b. Life Event Stress Causes
The second major category of stress is significant life events, which are often life changes that are
out of our control. Major life events include items we choose, like getting married, having a child,
moving and changing jobs, but also include devastating crises such as the death of a loved one or
a natural disaster.
Significant life events can blindside us with a tremendous amount of stress all at once. An
unexpected illness, death or the loss of a job can leave us feeling helpless and overwhelmed. These
events can take a toll on our mind and body in a very short amount of time if we don’t take
measures to deal with them effectively.
All of us will face both everyday stressors and significant life changes during the course of our
lives. Knowing this makes it crucial that we develop some skills for coping with stress, so that it
doesn’t take a major toll on our mental and physical health.
Some biological and environmental factors can also induce stress. Some possible biological factors
Low fitness level
Pregnancy, puberty, menopause or aging
Possible environmental factors include:
Lack of social support
Job pressures or unemployment
Inner conflicts or unresolved issues
Low self esteem
Lack of coping skills
Too many stimulus demands such as noise, traffic or radio
Lack of spiritual guidance
Stressors are not always limited to situations where some external situation is creating a problem.
Internal events such as feelings, thoughts, and habitual behaviors can also cause negative stress.
Common internal sources of distress include: • Fears (e.g., fears of ﬂying, heights, public speaking,
chatting with strangers at a party) • Repetitive thought patterns • Worrying about future events
(e.g., waiting for medical test results or job restructuring) •Unrealistic or perfectionist expectations
Habitual behavior patterns that can lead to stress include: •Over scheduling •Failing to be assertive
• Failing to set and maintain healthy boundaries • Procrastination and/or failing to plan ahead
Cognitive Aspects of Stress and Anxiety
Anxiety is a feeling that we commonly experience when faced with stressful life events. Anxiety
can be one of the most distressing emotions that people feel. It is sometimes called “fear or
nervousness”. Common reactions to anxiety include:
Physical Symptoms: • Sweaty palms • Muscle tension • Racing heart • Flushed cheeks • Light
Behaviors: • Avoiding situations where experiencing anxiety might occur • Leaving situations
when feelings of anxiety begins to occur • Trying to do things perfectly or trying to control events
to prevent danger
Moods: • Nervous • Irritable • Anxious • Panicky
Thoughts: •Overestimation of danger •Underestimation of your ability to cope • Underestimation
of help available • Worries and catastrophic thoughts
Stressors can contribute to our feelings of anxiety. Examples of stressors that contribute to feelings
of anxiety might include trauma (being abused, being in an accident, war); illness or death, things
we are taught (“snakes will bite you”); things we observe (an article in the newspaper about a plane
crash); and experiences that seem too much to handle (giving a speech, job promotion or
termination, having a baby).
The thoughts that accompany anxiety involve the perception that we are in danger or that we are
threatened or vulnerable in some way. A threat of danger can be physical, mental, or social. A
physical threat occurs when you believe that you will be physically hurt (e.g., a snake bite, a heart
attack, being hit). A social threat occurs when you believe you will be rejected, humiliated,
embarrassed, or put down. A mental threat occurs when something makes you worry that you are
going crazy or losing your mind.
The perception of the threats varies from person to person. Some people, because of their life
experiences, may feel threatened very easily and will often feel anxious. Other people may feel a
greater sense of safety or security. Certain life experiences such as growing up in a chaotic home
with volatile surroundings may lead a person to conclude that the world and other people are
The perception of danger and sense of vulnerability may have helped a person survive as a child.
Being able to recognize danger and its early warning signs are critical to one’s emotional and
physical survival. Some may have developed a very ﬁne ability to spot and respond to dangerous
As an adult, it may become important to evaluate whether or not its possible that one is over-
responding to danger and threat. Perhaps the people in their adult life are not as threatening as the
people in their childhood. One might consider whether or not their resources and abilities to cope
as an adult open new and creative ways of responding to threat and anxiety.