What is Stress?

“I’m so stressed.” Everyone’s felt this way at one point or another– but what is exactly is stress, and how does it affect us?

“Stress” is caused by stressors: anything that causes an adjustive demand, such as frustration, conflict, pressure, or a need.  There are two kinds of stress, eustress and distress.

It is experienced when an individual experiences a stressor that requires some kind of biological, physiological, or psychological response in order to meet these adjustive demands (the effect of the stressor).

Coping strategies are the efforts that we exert to deal with these stressors and reduces stress.

So what makes something stressful?

Its nature:

  • Actual or perceived importance
  • Being chronic (reoccurring) or temporary
  • Being cumulative (piling up) versus being punctual (singular)
  • Proximity (how closely does it affect you personally?)

Its severity: the degree of impairment caused by stressor (ex. a crisis: an overwhelming stressor with acute onset)

Its impact: potential consequences or outcomes (life changes: sudden changes, which can be both positive and negative)


Factors related to the stressed

Stress levels can be reduced or exacerbated due to a variety of factors, such as:

1. The perception of the stressor:

  • Perceived control and preparedness
  • Self-efficacy
  • Perceived benefit/harm

2. Personal stress tolerance levels: your ability to tolerate stress without impairment is affected by…

  • Physiology
  • Learning
  • Any previous trauma
  • External resources and social support

Effects of Stress

  1. Physical
  2. Behavioral
  3. Cognitive
  4. Psychological/Emotional

To begin, let’s look into some of the physical or biological effects of stress.

The main effect is the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system, along with the activation of the parasympathetic/sympathetic nervous systems (fight or flight).

First, the brain perceives danger or a threat in the environment. Then…

  1. Stress triggers release of cortisol, the “stress hormone”.
  2. Increased heart rate and blood flow to muscles, dilated pupils, skin constriction, increased blood sugar
    • Rapid breathing
    • Up to 400% increase in blood flow
  3. Release of catecholamines like dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine
  4. Activation of the amygdala (responsible for emotional responses like fear or anger)
  5. Decreases frontal lobe activity (responsible for short-term memory, attention, concentration, inhibition, rational thought)
  6. Hippocampus is activated to store experience in long-term memory
  7. Brain releases a protein that decreases need for sleep, increases alertness, and intensifies anxiety


The Side Effects of Fight or Flight: How stress makes you sick

  • Skin constriction due to rerouted blood flow:  cool, clammy, sweaty, goose bumps
  • Increased blood sugar for energy results in jitteriness, sense of restlessness
  • Immunoresponse to diverted to areas most likely to be injured
  • Shutting down of digestive system can result in nausea, undigested food, vomiting, etc.
  • Dry mouth, difficulty swallowing

After reading the list of symptoms, it’s easy to see how chronic stress causes physical wear and tear on the body.

Over time, what can chronic or prolonged stress do to us?

  1. Premature cell death (aging)
  2. Hypertension
  3. Suppression of the immune system (more prone to illness)
  4. Suppression of the digestive system (inflammation, diarrhea, constipation; irritable bowel disease and other GI track problems)
  5. Suppression of the reproductive system (lower sex drive, and during sympathetic nervous system arousal, rational thinking is diminished)

(Mental disorders & stress, to be continued in Part 2…)

Let us know if there’s any inaccuracy in this post. When was the last time you experienced stress and how did you deal with it? Comment below and we will give you a free digital magazine. 

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