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Updated 13 November 2014

Understanding stress

Before you can start learning how to manage your stress, you should have a sound understanding of what stress is and how you react to it.

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Stress is a term we use to explain the experience felt in mind and body when we encounter, respond or react to challenging life stressors.

The scale of the reaction known as the ‘stress response’ is determined primarily by how we perceive the stressful event, our ability to cope with the stressor, and by the scale of the event. How an individual perceives and handles stress therefore plays a major role in determining their well being.

Life stressors can be physical, mental or emotional stimuli, and include both imaginary or real events. The ‘stress response’ has a very physical component that is mediated via complex interactions between the nervous, hormonal and immune systems.

Perception/paradigm
A paradigm is a frame through which we view things. It is the subjective perception we have about something that allows us to label it a threat or safe, bad or good, out of our control or a challenge we can work through. Changing your paradigm alone can change your stress levels.

When talking about stress, we have to consider common stressors, the perceptions of the individual to the stressor, and the coping ability that allow the impact of stress to be significant.

The cognitive interpretation or perception of an event/experience as 'stressful' is thought to vary from person to person. Individuals differ in their interpretation of what is stressful and their perception of a stressful event as being a threat (a negative perception) or a challenge (a positive perception).

These initial cognitive interpretations both directly and indirectly (via various coping methods) influence psychological and physical health-related outcomes. Recent empirical research shows a strong link between individuals' perceptions of stressors, coping methods, and psychological/physical health.

An individual's cognitive interpretation of a stressor will lead them to processes (e.g. coping methods) that directly enable or disable an individual to deal with stress.

Common life stressors
What are the most common life stressors?

  • Major life events such as loss of a loved one, retrenchment or divorce.
  • Trauma such as sexual abuse, earthquakes and military combat.
  • Socio-economic stressors such as malnutrition, poverty and bureaucracy.
  • Social stressors such as relationship issues, family changes, sexuality, loneliness and social phobia.
  • Occupational stress such as work overload, deadlines and lack of employment.
  • Nutritional factors such as poor eating habits, poor nutritional intake and dieting.
  • Substance abuse such as caffeine, alcohol, medications, smoking and drugs.
  • Financial stress.
  • Physical inactivity.
  • Chronic disease and pain.

The stress response
The ‘stress response’ is naturally inherent in all living things; it is directly connected to the instinct for survival. In humans it is what alerts us to danger, and is often called the ‘fight or flight response’.

The body’s resources are mobilised for a primarily immediate physical response. This process of stimulus and response has a training effect that allows adaptation over time.

However, when we perceive that the life stressors increase beyond our control, and/or our ability to cope diminishes, the stress response starts to negatively impact on health and well being.

It is these two differing factors (perception of stressful event and coping mechanism) that determines why similar stressors affect people differently, and why stressors of seemingly differing magnitude can evoke high levels of stress.

Stress has become the defining feature of the modern western world as the pace of life increases while the innate abilities of humans have remained relatively the same. Stress is on a continuum. At a positive level it is known as ‘eustress’. At an excessive or negative level it is known as ‘distress’.

The relaxation response
Dr Herbert Benson in the 1970s used this term to describe a response that is opposite to the stress response. The stress response is regulated by the sympathetic nervous system, whereas the relaxation response is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system, and can be conditioned by the individual.

It is a response that is designed for repair and maintenance of the body and so is vital to well being. The involuntary stress response can be changed to a relaxation response by the use of voluntary deep breathing. In this way the stress response can be reconditioned through various techniques such as meditation, progressive relaxation, self-hypnosis, biofeedback and prayer.

This conditioned ability for us to actively relax can bring a measure of control over the way stress affects us.

Stress conditioning
The nature and type of stress has changed over the last few hundred years. Life stressors are more long term and imaginary today. Most of the things that stress people out in modern life, never happen; it is more related to ‘what if that happens’. The subconscious mind cannot discern the difference between this real stressful event or a mental preoccupation of a stressful event, and so the physical body reacts in a manner as if it is real.

An imaginary stressor repeated long enough can filter through and alter perception of the event, thereby creating a form of conditioned response. Stress conditioning will eventually lead to a negative hyper-response in the face of minimal stressors. This is often what triggers anxiety, insomnia, and other symptoms of chronic stress. This is also the reason that many people have to relearn the ‘relaxation response’.

Stress resilience/ stress competency
Stress resilience is our ‘fitness’ to cope with stress. It is largely dictated by our physical, mental and emotional state of well being, by our perception/paradigm of the stressful event, the environment and support structure, and by the healthiness of our stress-coping habits. Effective stress competency can be developed, and will increase stress resilience.

Positive coping mechanisms
Certain stress-coping habits allow for positive coping of stress without negative consequences, providing they are done at a safe and effective level for the individual. These include:

  • A positive mindset
  • Rest and relaxation
  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate and balanced nutrition
  • Good communication
  • Emotional support
  • Physical contact
  • Humour
  • Time planning
  • Financial planning

Negative coping mechanisms
People also use certain habitual ways to cope with distress. These habits, while dealing with the immediate stress, will of themselves over time create more stress and negatively affect health.

Examples of negative coping mechanisms include:

  • Chemical dependence in the form of illicit drugs, medications, alcohol, caffeine and smoking
  • Overeating
  • Too much television
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Victim behaviour
  • Overspending
  • Manic behaviour

- (Dr Chase Webber, Health24, December 2012)

Read More:

Top 10 ways to relax

Smiling lowers stress levels

Stressed rich live longer than stressed poor

 
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