Defining Stress

Stress is felt when a person perceives that they do not have the resources to deal with a particular situation. This includes not having sufficient money, time, energy, or capability.

In many cases this is a negative situation – that is; they cannot fulfil something that is required of them. But stress may also be felt in positive situation, such a winning a large sum or money, getting married, having a first child.

Although these latter situations may be regarded as positive life experiences, that feeling of lacking can also apply; not knowing what to do with all that money, am I making the right decision getting married, will the wedding go to plan, what really happens in child-birth. All these factors have one underlying theme – a sense of not being in control.


Inherent or Instinctive Stress

Our body has an inherent built in stress mechanism that controls how we instinctively deal with stress. It is known as the Fight or Flight Response. This response system triggers our basic survival instinct to drive hormonal release to prepare our body to deal with the stress situation.

Fight and flight are acute responses; they occur at the intial trigger point of the stress event.

Should the stressful event continue the body starts adapting to the stress. Such situations may include suffering the loss of a loved one through death or divorce, prolonged bad weather, sustained difficulties in the workplace.

This is known as the General Adaption Syndrome, and typically has three phases:

Phase 1: Alarm Reaction

The first phase of the general adaptation syndrome is ones immediate instinctive reaction to a stressor. This is known as the alarm reaction; our “fight or flight" response, as mentioned above. It only occurs when we encounter something unexpected.

Phase 2: Stage of Resistance

During this phase, if the stress continues, the body starts to adapt to the stressors. Physiological changes, triggered by hormones, kick into action to reduce the effect of the stressor. These hormones may trigger a number of systemic activities, such as:

  • Focus our attention on the threat, keeping us alert to survive any life-threatening events.
  • Increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles to help us run faster or fight harder.
  • Increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient.
  • In starvation - desire for physical activity to conserve energy, and may also maximise the absorption of nutrients from food.
  • In freezing condition - divert blood away from the skin to maintain the heat of critical organs.
  • Serious Injuries - divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss.

Phase 3: Stage of Exhaustion

Should the stress continue for some time, the body's resistance to the stress may gradually be reduced, or may quickly collapse. One common sign of this phase is that the person may experience illness, develop diseases such as high blood pressure, and eventually suffer a heart attack.

All of these conditions indicate the immune system is severely compromised. One form of this is commonly referred to as “burn out”

Before we reach this stage, every tasks may become more difficult, purely do to our lack of ability to deal with them. In phase one and two, we are in an “excited” state and may appear, anxious, jumpy and irritable to others. This does not foster good relationships. You may also find yourself more accident-prone and less able to make good decisions. Many of the physiological responses that help us during phase one dissipate, as we are not engaging in “unexpected” situations.

What constitutes a “stressful” situation varies from person to person.

For some, the frustration felt when being interrupted during a period of intense concentration is stressful. For others, enduring someone else’s music is stressful. It generally comes back to that sphere of control again – someone has intruded in my space. I note with interest, that many American men stand very close to me when talking. I find this uncomfortable, as it is not a trait shared with New Zealand men. This intrusion into my sphere of comfort is somewhat stressful for me. I can either fight, by asking them to step back, or flight, by stepping back myself. To American women, used to this, may find it quite normal, feeling no stress response at all. Hence, the intensity of stress is highly variable and is a normal part of everyday life.

However, few everyday events can be dealt with by this simple fight or flight decision and response. We are subjected to enduring stresses that need to be dealth with in a rational, calm and controlled manner.

Fortunately, we do have a factor we can control, which significantly impacts the development of each phase of the General Adaption Syndrome. This factor is the way that we think and interpret the situations in which we find ourselves. By understanding how we can use our body and mind together, we can divert the long term impact of stress.


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Next: Mental Burnout - What Happens and Why

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