Understanding Stress

There are various examples of stress that we can remember from our own experiences. To give a few examples it can be related to an exam, when you had an important submission coming up, work-related deadlines, missing a bus on a day when you are getting late etc. All the challenges, difficult circumstances and difficulties that we face put us to stress however if handled properly stress may increase one's possibility of doing better in certain situations. Too little stress may leave us unmotivated therefore some level of stress is essential and good for us. However, when the stress levels increase to an extent where it starts interfering without day to day activates and leaves us further dejected it can be considered harmful.

Stress can be defined as a negative emotional experience accompanied by an overt biochemical, physiological, cognitive, and behavioural changes. Stressful events that cause us stress are called stressors. For instance, a study conducted in the United States revealed money, the economy, work, family health problems, and family responsibilities are their top five stressors (American Psychological Association, 2008). 

The general adaptative syndrome is a model that explains to us how the body reacts to stress when it is prolonged. Given by Hans Seyle, he proposed that when an individual is faced with a stressor, regardless of the cause the individual will respond with the same physiological pattern of reactions. 

There are 3 stages to the reaction to stress

Alarm reaction stage: 

Resistance stage

Exhaustion stage



Stress produces physiological distress and leads to several changes in our body that have can have long term effects if not managed and controlled. Two systems of our body are involved in the process of a stress response. They are sympathetic-adrenomedullary (SAM) system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. When events are seen as harmful or threatening, they are identified by the cerebral cortex, which, in turn, starts a chain of reactions. Information from the cortex is then transmitted to the hypothalamus, which starts one of the early responses to stress which is sympathetic nervous system arousal. The Sympathetic arousal then stimulates the medulla of the adrenal glands, which, secretes the catechol- amines epinephrine (EP) and norepinephrine (NE). These effects result in the physiological changes of increased blood pressure, increased heart rate and increased sweating.



Over the long term, high-level discharge of epinephrine and norepinephrine can lead to several biological and psychological problems. The following are a few: 

  • Increased blood pressure 

  • Increased heart rate

  • Production of various neurochemical imbalances in our brain that may contribute to the development of psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, OCD.

  • Catecholamines may also have effects on lipid levels and free fatty acids which further may lead to the development of atherosclerosis.  

  • Corticosteroids have immunosuppressive effects, which can compromise the functioning of the immune system and further other illnesses that may come with a compromised immune system.

  • Constant cortisol secretion has also been related to the destruction of neurons in the hippocampus area, which may further cause problems with verbal functioning, memory, and concentration (Starkman, Giordani, Brenent, Schork, & Schteingart, 2001) 

  • Poor sleep is the most common consequence of chronic stress. Because sleep plays a vital restorative activity, this mechanism, too if disturbed can lead to other illnesses.  (Edwards, Hucklebridge, Clow, & Evans, 2003).


What Makes Events Stressful?

Uncontrollable events or unpredictable events are more stressful than controllable or predictable ones. When people feel that they have access to controlling the events or those who are influencing it or can predict a stressful event they experience a relatively low level of stress. The feeling of being able to control an event reduces both the subjective experience of stress and influences the biochemical reactions to it. Events that are ambiguous and unpredictable produce more stress as the person cannot take action to control or change them.

Life Events

Though all people experience at least some stressful events in the span of their life some people will experience a lot more. According to Holmes and Rahe it is the group that experiences constant stress is most vulnerable to illnesses that are related to stress. Stressful life events may include the death of a loved one, natural disasters, financial strains, an illness in the family etc. These events require us to make significant changes in our life some may even require us to move geographically as well which can further at to the stress.

Daily Stress

Researchers have also studied minor stressful events, or daily hassles, and their impact on our health and illness. Such hassles include being stuck in traffic, waiting in a line, doing household chores, and having difficulty making small decisions. Daily minor problems though may seem small compared to other major life events they produce significant psychological distress, adverse physiological changes and physical symptoms. These minor hassles and events may affect physical and psychological health in several ways. Firstly, the overall impact of small stressors may wear a person down, leading to illness. Second, such events may aggravate and increase the reactions to major life events.

Chronic Stressors

Chronic stress is long-term and can be extremely hard on us, examples include living in poverty, a bad relationship, a high-stress job, illness in a family etc. Chronic stress is an important contributor to psychological distress and also eventually leads to physical illness (Kahn & Pearlin, 2006). Something as mundane as commuting can affect daily cortisol levels and perceived stress, affecting several people.

Double Roles

A lot of the stress that people experience today results not from one role in their lives but from the combination of several roles that they have to carry out throughout their lives. As adults we work, we manage our relationships and social life. Each of these roles may come with heavy obligations, and stress can result when one is attempting to combine multiple roles (Nylén, Melin, & Laflamme, 2007).



Relaxation Techniques: an active skill that reduces is beneficial to reduce symptoms of stress and minimise the chances of physical illnesses such as high blood pressure. Relaxation techniques involve a series of muscle relaxations and deep breathing that starts with the lower part of the body and is moved upwards to each facial muscle. 

Meditation Procedures: These involve concentrated deep breathing exercises that help us gather our thoughts in a precise and mindful manner. There are various types of meditative techniques today however even simple deep breathing for 15-20 minutes can be highly effective to reduce stress levels. 

Exercise: Exercise can be an active technique where we are using our body as a means to calm our muscles and mind. It can be highly effective if regularly followed and maintained as part of your routines. 

Expressive writing: Disclosing emotions and writing about our experiences can help us concerning high levels of stress. Writing is especially helpful when stress is chronic or long-term and can help one gather their thoughts and come up with practical solutions. Writing can be regarded as a form of communication as it provides an opportunity to clarify thoughts and emotions about a stressful or traumatic event.


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