FOUR COMPONENTS OF STRESS
The stress process includes four components that interact and influence each other:
- Physical responses
- Psychological responses
- Behavioral responses
Each of these components plays a part in how we react to stress. For example, if you’re already in a bad mood, an upsetting event at work will be more likely to put you under stress than if you’re feeling happy and confident. We can all remember times when, suffering from a cold or a bad case of the ‘flu, we felt depressed and unable to cope with even the simplest of situations.
Let’s look at the components of stress to get a further understanding of how they work, both individually and together.
These are the events or situations in our lives that put demands on our coping skills. Some of them are obvious. There are the daily occurrences we all deal with – a flat tire, a glass of milk spilled on the carpet, the morning we get up late, the car doesn’t start, a 100 e mails waiting for you at work, and we miss that important business appointment. Such events are disagreeable but not catastrophic. A cup of coffee, a friendly word or a good laugh can usually clear the air and put the event behind us.
More serious are the stressors we can’t control or find relief from, and the more prolonged they are the more harm they can do. Struggling to keep a failing business afloat, dealing with the breakup of a marriage, working under an obstinate or incompetent superior – these are hidden stressors that build up over a period of years. If they aren’t recognized and managed they can result in chronic stress and cause physical, psychological and behavioral disorders.
If you were to make a checklist of yourself during any given stressful moment, you might find that some or all of the following things were happening: your stomach, arm and leg muscles might be tense and rigid; your pulse rate might be increased and your heart pounding; you might feel yourself perspiring and find that you were unable to sit still and concentrate, and even your digestive system might be upset.
These are all physical responses to stress, the results of our bodies’ efforts to adapt to stressful conditions. They come under the heading of the “fight or flight” response and they can be extremely useful.
In Stop Killing Yourself, Susan Seliger relates several true stories of people whose physical responses to stress gave them almost super-human powers:
- A mother in Dorset, England, who weighed only 112 lbs., moved a 2000 lb. car and saved her son who was pinned under it.
- A weight lifter in Georgia was lying on his back, bench-pressing 250 lbs. in his basement, when the weight slipped and dropped on to his neck and began choking him. He was helpless, unable to shift the weight. His 60-lb., 11-year-old daughter – the only one at home at the time – managed to lift the weight off her father so that he could catch his breath and lift it the rest of the way off.
- A 70-year-old man saw the car in which his 12-year-old granddaughter was riding go over an embankment. He managed to get down the slope to her, pick her up and carry her up a hill so steep that a 35-year-old relative who visited the scene said he could barely make it up alone and believed it was impossible to do so carrying an unconscious, 70-lb. weight.
Stress, as a temporary element, can prod us to greater heights. But on a day-to-day level, it merely causes us headaches, backaches and muscle pain. When it’s chronic – that is, when it continues for a long time without relief – it can lead to high blood pressure, insomnia and even, in some cases, sudden heart attacks.
To understand how that can happen, let’s look at the three stages of the “fight or flight” response:
When your brain perceives a stressor, it sends a message to your pituitary gland, which secretes hormones to stimulate the adrenal gland to release adrenals into the bloodstream. The body is now ready to deal with any real or imagined dangers or challenges.
This occurs when the stressor persists. The body adapts to running in high gear, a situation that drains a good deal of the body’s energy as the high levels of hormones continue. If the immediate threat is overcome, the body’s reverse mechanism comes into play and things return to normal. If, however, this stage continues for too long, the body’s resources become depleted and the next stage sets in.
At this point your body is telling you it is running out of steam. Your blood vessels may start to tighten up, making it harder for the blood to flow through them. Chronic stress also changes the chemistry of the blood, making it more lily to clot. This means there’s a greater chance that a clot will form and lodge in a narrow artery in the heart, and cause a heart attack. So chronic stress can be hard on the heart.
In the first place, it’s important to understand that an event or situation becomes a stressor simply because you see it as one. Policemen, for instance, report that they feel more under stress when they have to deal with the boring paperwork of a desk job than when they are out making arrests and intervening in crimes. They have been trained to act, and when they perceive themselves to not be acting, they feel stress.
Also, how you coped with a similar experience in the past will determine your expectations about whether or not you are going to be able to deal with a stressful situation in the present. Simply knowing that this has happened before, and you were fine, can relax any fears or anxieties you might have about the event. On the other hand, if this is an entirely new event, or if a similar situation occurred in the past and you were unable to handle it, you are probably going to be apprehensive about your ability to cope.
To complicate matters, many of us believe there is something inherently wrong with feeling anxious or depressed, and that attitude in itself increases our levels of stress. We may try to eliminate those feelings by smoking, drinking alcohol, overeating or keeping ourselves so busy there’s no time to dwell on our anxieties.
When we’re having difficulty managing stress, we may find we can’t concentrate at work, or have difficulty making even the simplest decision. We may become irritable and quick to anger, or find that we’re developing irrational fears about everyday situations. Feelings of stress can chip away at our self-confidence.
The “fight or flight” response can be a constructive attempt to solve a problem or an inappropriate reaction to a difficult situation, depending on the circumstances. In wartime, a soldier may be called on to fight for his country; punching an antagonistic co-worker, however, doesn’t solve anything. It makes sense to flee a dangerous animal; running away from a traffic jam is neither appropriate nor, in most cases, possible. And it is because we cannot attack our coworkers or immediately disentangle ourselves from traffic jams that stress has such an impact on our behavior.
The “fight” response can be aggressive, such as losing your temper and lashing out at your partner. It can also be passive, where you sulk and ignore people. The “flight” response, in which you walk away or avoid stressful situations, generally reduces stress in the short term. But it can restrict the way you live your life and cause further stress because of that. And of course, you cannot always flee a stressful situation. Nervous tics, nail biting, absent-mindedness and foot tapping are all forms of escape and are pretty harmless. But other means of escaping stress – increased use of alcohol, smoking, taking drugs, using tranquilizers – bring with them a host of other problems, which in turn lead to further stress.
It’s not the event or situation in itself that harms us; it’s our reaction, our perception of the event, how we think and feel about it, that can either hurt us or motivate us to achieve our goals. Stress can actually be a positive force in our life. Symphony conductors are good examples of this. The average conductor has what to many would seem a stressful life. He or she travels a good deal, consistently has to meet deadlines, deals with often temperamental musicians, and works continually in the glare of public scrutiny. And yet these men and women live longer than the rest of us. Why? Well, they take pride in their achievements, receive applause for their work, are respected in the world of music and the community at large, and receive a great amount of creative fulfillment from their jobs. These factors would seem to outweigh any negative by-products of stress.
We can’t all be symphony conductors, nor would we wish to be. But we do need, each of us in our own way, to find balance and equilibrium in our lives and our work. What may be a negative stressor to one person can be a challenge to someone else. Thrill-seekers see sky-diving as exhilarating; most of the rest of us break out in a cold sweat at the thought. We need to find jobs and lifestyles that are compatible with our abilities and our individual levels of stress tolerance. And we need to learn to manage the stressors we cannot change.
POSITIVE VS NEGATIVE STRESS
The difference between a “flat tire” stressor and a “failing marriage” stressor is obvious. The flat tire stress is acute but, after half an hour or so, there is a sense of relief in solving the problem and you carry on with your life – perhaps with a greater sense of achievement. A failing marriage is a chronic (no relief) stressor; it can wear you down physically and mentally.
The following Stress Awareness Checklist can help pinpoint negative stressors in your life. There are two aspects:
1. Your physical response to stress (how your body changes to meet the stress challenge) and,
2. Your stress cycle (do you relax or stay all wound up after the stressful event?)
EXERCISE 1: STRESS AWARENESS CHECKLIST
Your Physical Response
- Does your heart pound?
- Do your muscles tense?
- Do your hands become cold and clammy?
- Do you perspire?
- Does your stomach get “knotted”?
- Do you get a headache?
If you respond “Yes” to at least three of these symptoms, then your body is experiencing stress.
EXERCISE 2: YOUR STRESS CYCLE
- Do you feel a period of rest and renewal after the stress event?
- Does your body return to a relaxed, pre-stress state?
If you answer “Yes” to these questions, you’re experiencing positive stress: a good mix of arousal and relaxation that helps you perform better through greater concentration and effort.
- Do you feel you can’t turn off your stress response?
- Does your body stay “wound up” in the so-called state of flight?
If you answer “Yes” to these questions, you can be experiencing negative stress: constant arousal that can lead to all kinds of debilitating health conditions. This is the stress you must try to eradicate from your life.
If you respond “Yes” to at least three of these symptoms, then your body is experiencing stress.
At this stage in your self-help program you should identify the negative stressors in your life. Think carefully about events and situations that generate negative stress; recognizing these can be the first step in relieving your stress and anxiety. We’ll deal with the “how-to” in overcoming negative stress in another article. The main thing is that you are documenting the problem areas you will be tackling.
Recurring events, situations, relationships or behavior that drain your sense of physical or psychological well-being are all indicators of stress that may show up as health problems.
To diagnose the negative elements in your life, write out the details of events that bothered you. Describe the event, the circumstances, your behavior and the outcome.
Using this technique may help put the situation into better perspective and help you interpret more objectively why it was stressful for you. Looking at the event in hindsight may reduce your stress and anxiety and set you on a positive path. It may also teach you to cope better if and when such a situation recurs.
The bottom line for changing these negative stressors is that if you choose to mentally process the experience in a different way, stress and anxiety can be reduced or eliminated. It’s all in the mind.