What is stress?
Stress is something everyone experiences at some point in their life. Be it from work, relationships, finances, or other sources – being stressed about something is a part of being alive. However, despite it being an accepted part of everyday living, few people actually know what causes stress, what effect it has on the body, or what methods or techniques can be used to combat it. The term ‘stress’ was first used by Hans Seyle in 1963 and defined as “a syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents” (Burman & Goswami, 2018). Stress, therefore, is the body’s response to a harmful stimulus. Such a stimulus – termed ‘stressor’ – can be anything from a sudden loud noise to long working hours or low income. These stressors can be acute (intense but short-term, like the loud noise example) or chronic (less intense but lasting over a long period of time, such as with the low-income example). A stressor can also begin as acute and develop into chronic stress. Chronic stressors can also have acute manifestations when they become especially intense.
The most common type of stress is distress, which leads to a negative response from the body as a result of being overwhelmed by a stimulus. However, there also exists a positive manifestation of stress: eustress, which has beneficial effects on the body and mind. An example of eustress is the release of endorphins or dopamine (Harkness & Hayden, 2020). The study stress and how it relates to the body’s ability to handle illness falls under the scope of health psychology, which focuses on how psychological factors affect one’s health and wellness. Meanwhile, the field of environmental psychology studies the way in which an individual reacts to their surroundings, including how one’s environment may cause or relieve stress.
How do we respond to stress?
Everyone is different. Thus, their ways of dealing with stress are also different. Some people may be more susceptible to stress, others less so. Despite this, most people are similar in their immediate physical reactions to stressful stimuli. The most well-known response is termed the Fight or Flight Response. It is the response to acute stress, which manifests as a rapid release of hormones. These force the body into a heightened state, in which it can act faster than would normally be possible for the individual. This allows the person to respond to the stressor by either running away from it or, if that is not an option, by combating it to remove it.
Another well-known stress response mechanism is the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which was described in 1946 by Hans Selye (Kring & Johnson, 2018). General Adaptation Syndrome occurs in three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. During the first stage, the body identifies a stressor and sends distress signals to the brain. The brain responds by releasing hormones that prepare the body for a reaction, including adrenaline. Next, the resistance stage occurs, during which the body attempts to combat the stressor. This stage can last until the stressor is removed or until the body exhausts all its resources. Finally, the exhaustion stage is when the body, now no longer under the effects of the hormones released in the alarm stage, begins to experience the after-effects of adrenaline exposure. This can occur even if the stressor persists, as the body cannot maintain the alarmed state forever.
All stress responses are characterized by certain physical characteristics, such as dilated pupils, elevated heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, among others. These responses allow the body to respond more effectively to stress and can be both beneficial and detrimental. For example, increased heart rate (tachycardia) allows for faster blood flow to the muscles and other tissues. This increases the oxygenation rate and the speed of travel of adrenaline and other hormones. On the other hand, tachycardia wears down the cardiac muscle and carries the risk of eventual heart failure, heart attack, and the formation of blood clots leading to thrombosis (Yaribeygi et al., 2017). Due to these risks, the heightened ‘alarm’ or ‘fight-or-flight’ state is only maintained for a short amount of time.
What can cause stress in your life?
An average person encounters many stressful situations throughout a single day; such small, day-to-day stressors are called daily hassles. Most of them are considered minor and are often overlooked. However, even minor stressors can become impactful when encountered in large numbers over a short period of time. Bigger stressors are called significant life changes, which are events that, unlike daily hassles, have a long-term impact on the person’s life and may contribute to chronic stress (Harkness & Hayden, 2020). Both daily hassles and significant life changes can contribute to burnout – and emotional, physical, and mental exhausted state caused by prolonged stress (Harkness & Hayden, 2020). The most significant stressors are called catastrophes – major life events that leave a lasting impact on one’s life, such as natural disasters, war, rape, and traumatic loss of loved ones, among others. Catastrophes may even lead to the development of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is marked by an avoidance of stressors that remind one of the experienced traumas and the return to the high-stress state when such reminding stressors are encountered, whether the actual threat is there or not (Kring & Johnson, 2018). PTSD is a life-long disorder that affects many veterans of war and survivors of tragedies.
How does stress impact health?
Due to the way the body reacts to stressful situations, excessive or prolonged stress can have a negative effect on an individual’s physical health as well as their psychological health. The release of adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones puts a great strain on the body that, when used excessively over a long period of time, begins to wear down the various systems involved. The most palpable effects of stress can be seen in the heart. During the fight-or-flight response, blood vessels are dilated and the heart rate increases to allow faster oxygen supply to the muscles and other tissues. However, over time, this wears down the heart, tiring out the cardiac muscles. This can lead to heart disease and increase the risk of myocardial infarction (Yaribeygi et al., 2017). Chronic stress can lead to irregular heart rate and an increased chance of formation of blood clots, which may lead to stroke.
As the body’s systems switch into fight-or-flight response, many functions are set as secondary. Unfortunately, this includes immune functions, which are shown to be weaker in individuals under stress than those without it (Yaribeygi et al., 2017). This has been linked to the release of cortisol, which under normal circumstances, is released in small bursts to boost the immune system via causing inflammation. However, chronic stress (and thus steady release of cortisol) causes the body to become used to its effects. This decreases the sensitivity of the immune system to inflammation, making it less likely to react to an actual threat. Stress also decreases the number of lymphocytes in the body, which adversely affects the body’s ability to combat disease. As a result, stress has been linked to increased chance of cancer development and possible faster progression of HIV into AIDS.
In some people, stress may lead to the development of somatoform disorders, wherein they experience bodily symptoms without there being a typical biological or neurological cause. Such symptoms can include chest pains, tiredness, dizziness, back pains, and nausea. Symptoms related to sex drive or sexual performance are also possible. Some people may even develop more severe symptoms, such as tremors, blindness, hearing loss, numbness, or nonepileptic seizures. Somatoform disorders are difficult to treat precisely because they appear to have no physiological basis. Many patients suffering from this do not realize that their symptoms are related to their stress, while doctors may waste time looking into potential sources that are not there. Even if stress is not the root cause of these disorders, it often makes them worse than they originally were.
Other key body systems may also be adversely affected by stress, especially if it is chronic. Headaches, muscle pain, fatigue, mood changes, and stomach issues (including ulcers) are all more likely to occur in people suffering from chronic stress or undergoing a stressful period of their lives. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and their derivatives are also linked to high levels of stress. Continuous inflammation as a result of increased cortisol release can lead to conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease. It is important to take care of one’s stress levels in order to live a healthier, longer life.
What are the kinds of coping mechanisms?
Just as people experience stress differently, so do they cope with it differently as well. Coping strategies – also called defense mechanisms – are tactics people use to decrease their stress to manageable levels (Carroll, 2019). There are four different kinds of coping mechanisms, all of which can be used together or in combinations of two or more. These coping mechanisms are problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping, meaning-focused coping, and social coping (also called support-seeking) (Aldorani & Gupta, 2021). They can be used individually or altogether, in various combinations. Different people find different mechanisms to be more or less useful depending on their own upbringing, socio-economic background, and personal beliefs.
Problem-focused coping aims to reduce or eliminate the root of the stress after it has occurred. It is characterized by choosing targeted behavior to address the source of the stress (active coping), waiting until an opportunity to act presents itself (restraint coping), and setting aside other tasks to focus on dealing with the stress (suppression of competing activities).
Emotion-focused coping attempts to eliminate or reduce the negative emotional impact that the stress has. This can be done through reframing the stressful situation in a new light (positive reframing) and accepting that the stress has happened (acceptance). Other methods of emotion-focused coping include turning to religious beliefs or using humor to improve the situation.
Meaning-focused coping revolves around an individual trying to make sense of the situation and why it had occurred. This is done through a number of cognitive strategies as well as other means, such as religious beliefs or science.
Social support or support-seeking uses social bonds to address stress through seeking emotional support from friends, family, and the community.
What can you do to deal with stress?
Methods of dealing with stress and its aftereffects are as varied as the people who use them. It is important to experiment and learn what works for you instead of attempting to mimic someone else’s stress-relief strategies. Some people find solace in physical activity such as exercise or pursuing a sport. Such activities stimulate the body to return to normal state after prolonged fight-or-flight mode, as well as being beneficial to one’s overall health. Exercise can also increase the overall endurance of the organism against high-stress situations, improve cardiac health to resist the negative effects of adrenaline and other hormones, and generally improve health and wellness.
For those who are not fond of physical exercise, meditation (including yoga) can be a good option, as it allows the brain to calm down from the stress and gives the body time to recover as well. Meditation may help with untangling the thoughts and feelings that may be leading to anxiety and stress in a person, or help them think of ways to combat the source of stress if it is external. Even if neither of these two are possible, meditation may still lead to improved mental well-being.
Finally, in the cases when chronic stress becomes an issue, it may be advised to talk to someone. It may be friends, relatives, a partner, or a professional (or therapy group), but speaking about one’s stressors may help some individuals to log out the potential solutions to problems, or at least to find comfort in someone else. Many people find it helpful to confide in friends or trusted family members, while others seek out professional help from someone who can not only listen, but offer professional advice on the issue.
Algorani E. B. & Gupta V. (2021) Coping Mechanisms. StatPearls.
Burman, R., & Goswami, T. G., (2018). A systematic literature review of work stress. International Journal of Management Studies, 3(9)
Carroll, D. (2019). Health psychology: Stress, behavior and disease. Routledge.
Harkness, K. L., & Hayden, E. P. (2020). The oxford handbook of stress and mental health. Oxford University Press.
Kring, A. M., & Johnson, S. L. (2018). Abnormal psychology: The science and treatment of psychological disorders. John Wiley & Sons.
Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, 16, 1057–1072.