Table of Contents Hide
- What is Stress?
- Body Responses to Stress
- Benefits and Costs of Stress
- Stress Management
- A Prescription for Stress Management
What is Stress?
Although “stress” is a commonly used term in today’s vernacular, and most people appear to have an intuitive sense of what it means, stress is difficult to precisely define as it is often used interchangeably with a variety of other terms, such as anxiety, pressure, or strain.
In a general sense, stress refers to a collection of physiological, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive reactions that occur in response to environmental demands. As we interact with the world around us, we must make constant appraisals of environmental threats, challenges, and demands and attempt to cope with any issues that arise.
At times, environmental demands are easily handled, such as when you have to press a button on a key to unlock your car. However, at other times, the demands of the environment can seem daunting or unmanageable, such as when you have to take three exams on the same day and result in feelings of physical tension, negative thought patterns, and unpleasant emotional experiences.
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) suggested that stress results when the demands of the environment are greater than the individual’s perceived coping resources.
A “stressor” is any event or stimulus that causes stress. However, what serves as a stressor for one person may not be the same for another.
For example, being asked to attend a social event may create stress for someone who perceives that they lack the necessary social skills to fit in, whereas another person who feels comfortable in social situations may not experience any stress. Stressors can take many forms, ranging from the daily hassles of life to significant life changes.
Body Responses to Stress
When threatened by environmental dangers, changes, or demands, humans experience a variety of physiological and psychological changes. Once a threat has been recognized and appraised as dangerous, the individual evaluates available coping resources.
If the demands of the situation are deemed to be greater than the available coping resources, an “alarm” or ”Fight-or-Flight Response” is generated. During the fight-or-flight response, the body prepares for action, generally consisting of either confrontation or avoidance of the threat.
The sympathetic nervous system is activated, and hormones, including adrenaline and noradrenaline, are released into the bloodstream. Heart and respiration rates accelerate and blood pressure increases, enabling the body to quickly circulate oxygen-rich blood to the brain and large muscles of the body.
Blood is redirected away from the extremities to the core, and digestive processes are slowed. Muscles tend to become tense, eyes dilate, and hearing becomes more acute. Sweat glands activate to cool the body, and the skin often becomes paler or flushed.
Benefits and Costs of Stress
Although we generally think of stress as something to avoid, stress is a natural, adaptive response that serves a protective function. At moderate levels, stress helps alert us to potential threats in the environment and enables us to focus our attention on resolving the threat.
Stress also provides us with the energy needed to confront or retreat from the threat via the “fight-flight” response.
Although some stress is beneficial, prolonged or intense stress can be associated with a variety of negative physical and psychological outcomes.
For example, whereas moderate amounts of stress help to focus our attention, excessive stress leads to diminished attention, concentration, decision-making, and short-term memory. High stress can also lead to a variety of emotional disturbances, including irritability, depression, and anxiety disorders.
Indeed, many researchers consider stress a core component of the cause of emotional disorders. Chronic high stress is associated with serious physical health concerns, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, immunosuppression, and more frequent illnesses, sexual dysfunction, gastrointestinal disorders, and recurrent headaches.
High levels of stress are also associated with a variety of behaviors and lifestyle choices that can have negative health outcomes.
Research indicates that individuals experiencing high stress are more likely to engage in excessive alcohol consumption and increased use of drugs and tobacco products. Ironically, alcohol increases cortisol levels, which can prolong the feeling of tension generated by stress responses.
Given the beneficial nature of mild to moderate levels of stress, the goal of stress management is not to eliminate all stress. Rather, stress management techniques are designed to keep stress levels within an optimal range.
Engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors can help to reduce stress and maximize the likelihood of living a long, healthy life.
The following stress management techniques have been consistently supported by empirical research: physical activity and exercise; healthy eating; adequate sleep; relaxation, mindfulness, and meditation; laughter, self-expression, and social support; and cognitive restructuring.
1. Physical Activity and Exercise
Considerable evidence has accumulated indicating that regular physical exercise is associated with numerous physical and psychological health benefits.
For example, regular engagement in moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk, strengthens the immune system and decreases rates of illness. Exercise also strengthens body muscles, including the heart, preserves muscle mass, and helps with weight management.
Individuals who exercise regularly are also at a reduced risk for some chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension.
Although exercise is, technically, a stressor itself, requiring the body to adapt to the demands of the activity, research suggests that regular physical exercise can help to reduce the body’s reactivity to other stressors.
In fact, several studies have demonstrated that individuals who exercise demonstrate lower physiological (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate) markers of stress and report less anxiety in response to a stressful situation than those who do not exercise.
2. Healthy Eating
When experiencing high levels of stress, research suggests that many people change their eating patterns.
One of the most common dietary changes associated with stress involves the increased consumption of caffeine in an effort to improve early morning or late night productivity. Ironically, although caffeine is associated with short-term increases in alertness, caffeine can also exacerbate the stress response.
For example, caffeine stimulates the body to release various stress hormones, including cortisol and glucocorticoids, as well as catecholamines, which include epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine. The release of these chemicals is associated with heightened levels of stress for hours after ingestion.
In addition, caffeine consumption can lead to other conditions that can affect the body’s ability to respond to stress, including insomnia, hypertension, increased risk of heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, and immune system suppression, making you more prone to infections.
3. Adequate Sleep
Research suggests that the relationship between stress and sleep is bidirectional in that high levels of stress tend to be associated with impaired sleep, and lack of sleep tends to exacerbate the experience of stress.
Numerous studies have indicated that excessive stress tends to lead to a diminished ability to fall and stay asleep, an increased rate of nightmares, and poorer sleep quality.
In addition, various emotional disorders associated with stress and anxiety, such as posttraumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, are often associated with significant sleep disruption. On the other hand, lack of sufficient sleep often leads to suboptimal physiological and psychological functioning.
For example, sleep-deprived individuals report higher levels of stress, anxiety, and anger in response to even low-level psychological demands. Further, some evidence suggests that sleep deprivation affects cortisol (a stress hormone) levels, and neuroimaging studies indicate that sleep deprivation is associated with impaired neurological functions, including increased amygdala (part of the brain associated with emotional responses) reactivity and pre-frontal control regions of the brain.
4. Relaxation, Mindfulness, and Meditation
Relaxation, or easing of physical or mental stress, is often thought to be the antidote to stress. Relaxation and anxiety are thought to be opposing emotions, in that one cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time.
Indeed, the achievement of a state of relaxation during a period of stress is often a challenging task. However, a variety of techniques have been devised with the intention of helping one to reach a state of relaxation, several of which have demonstrated reliable efficacy in psychological research: Diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and meditation exercises.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep abdominal breathing, is a technique designed to slow one’s breathing and regulate oxygen intake. Diaphragmatic breathing involves taking slow, deep breaths with the intention of expanding and contracting the diaphragm, which is a muscle separating the chest and abdominal cavities.
5. Laughter, Self-Expression, and Social Support
It has long been said that “laughter is the best medicine.” Indeed, we now know that laughter produces many positive physiological and psychological changes in the body.
Research indicates that laughter increases oxygen intake and stimulates various muscles and organs, including the heart and lungs. Laughter also reduces blood pressure and blood sugar levels, increases blood flow, and improves energy levels.
In addition, laughter causes the release of endorphins, which can increase pain tolerance and induce feelings of euphoria. Humor provides a psychological distance from the current state and enables us to replace our negative appraisals with more positive ones. In fact, some research suggests that laughter may be as effective as mild aerobic exercise or relaxation training at improving mood.
6. Cognitive Restructuring
Often, we presume that the events that we experience have a direct effect on our emotions. For example, finding out that you made a poor grade on an exam or that your partner wants to break up with you CAUSES you to feel sad.
However, it is not the event itself that leads to the emotion. Rather, it is the meaning that you give to the event or your interpretation of the situation that determines the event’s emotional impact. If you interpret the poor grade to mean that you are not very intelligent or that you will never succeed in school no matter how hard you try, you will likely experience a depressed mood.
In contrast, if you interpret the grade as a fluke or the wake-up call you have needed to enhance your motivation for school, your mood will likely be much less negative.
A Prescription for Stress Management
To maximize your ability to cope with stress, try the following:
1. Exercise Regularly.
Engage in 3-5 sessions of moderate-intensity exercise each week to enhance your immune system and reduce your risk of developing anxiety and mood disorders. However, even if you cannot exercise regularly, remember that even a single episode of exercise can be a great way to relieve stress and improve mood.
2. Eat a Healthy Diet.
Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fatty fish to maximize your physical health and your body’s ability to manage stress.
Get 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night to improve your mood and boost your immune functioning.
4. Practice Relaxation.
Engage in relaxation exercises on a regular basis or during periods of moderate to high stress. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), guided imagery, and meditation are great ways to reduce your overall level of arousal. Or, combine exercise with meditation or mindfulness by engaging in yoga two to three times per week!
5. Express Yourself.
Look for humor in stressful situations, and find ways to express your emotions through writing, art, or talking with friends and family.
Attend to the ways in which you think about and interpret stressful situations and look for opportunities to reframe the situation in a more rational or positive manner. Remember, the test at the end of this chapter is not something to be feared. Instead, it represents an opportunity for you to demonstrate how much you have learned about stress and stress management!
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