What is Stress?

by Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.

What makes some events stressful and others not? How can I know it is stress that I am experiencing, not anxiety or depression? What happens to the stress if I "tough it out?"

When something threatens us, we react in ways to protect ourselves. Like our hunter and gatherer ancestors, we instinctively ready ourselves for "fight or flight." The stress reaction is an immediate response to a threatening circumstance. In the moment of crisis, we make internal adjustments in our body to prepare us to act in our self-interest. These adjustments include the arousal of our physical, thinking (cognitive), and emotional capacities, resulting in a pre-empting of normal functioning. Physical arousal includes increased activity, heart rate, and blood pressure; faster breathing rate; perspiration; and heightened muscle tension. Cognitive arousal includes restricting focus to the immediate crisis as well as disorganized thinking. Emotional arousal may involve overwhelming or blocked feeling.

The thinking and feeling basis for stress

The way we view stressful circumstances determines whether or not we experience the emotional and physical arousal associated with stressful events. Hans Selye, the originator of the stress concept, told a story illustrating the notion that it is not so much what we face, but how we face it that matters. The story is about an alcoholic's two sons. One is a teetotaler and the other an alcoholic. When asked to explain their drinking habits, both replied, "With a father like that, what can you expect?"

There are ways to turn a stressful experience into a valued learning experience, but all too often people adopt a "victim" mentality. This means thinking the stress chooses us, making it our fault that we are stressed. In actuality, the stress reaction occurs when we do not know how to handle a dilemma or challenge. Not knowing how to respond to the stressful event is not acceptable to us, so we see it as a threat to our integrity. When we personalize stress in this way, we experience discomfort from the resulting physical, cognitive, and emotional arousal. This "victim" mentality is so automatic, we miss the chance to see the dilemma or challenge as an opportunity to learn something. Consequently, we dodge the threat by acting impulsively or by "stuffing it." Either way, we maintain the pain of low self-esteem and the disabling consequences of stress.

by personalizing stress, we contribute to a sense of shame and an image of ourselves as unworthy. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has us unintentionally looking for and creating continuing confirmation of our unworthiness. Each time we face stress, our victim mentality reminds us that it must be our fault, since we are so unworthy. Arousal occurs in this closed system of thought. This blocks or distorts feedback about what is really happening in the world in favor of our expectation of unworthiness. In other words, all we see in the situation is how unworthy we believe ourselves to be.

Secondary stress symptoms (Resistance stage)

Many of us ignore the primary arousal accompanying an initial reaction to stress. When challenging events occur, we react by "toughing it out" and not revealing our confusion and uncertainty. Many of us associate "toughing it out" with strength, since we think the admission of vulnerability of any kind equates with cowardice, weakness, or frailty. Ignoring primary stress symptoms actually leaves us vulnerable to secondary stress symptoms in four areas of our lives: breathing, eating/elimination, sexuality, and sleeping.

Breathing -- Difficulty breathing, shallow breathing, and hyperventilating may be symptoms of stress or illness. There are three types of breathing: diaphragmatic (stomach), thoracic (chest), and clavicular (shoulder). Note whether the stomach, chest, or shoulders rise with breath intake. Thoracic and clavicular breathing increase tension while diaphragmatic breathing induces relaxation.

Eating/Elimination -- Overeating, binging, loss of interest in food, as well as problems in digestion and elimination may be symptoms of stress, depression, illness, or habitual behavior. Significant weight loss or gain in a short period of time may be a symptom of depression. Consuming sufficient, nutritious food to satisfy, but not overindulge, is a balance affected by each person's activity level, stress, lifestyle, and self-esteem.

Sexuality -- Sudden increases or decreases in sexual interest or activity, promiscuity, and sexual dysfunction may be symptoms of stress or depression. Overemphasis on sexuality in one's lifestyle suggests it may have become a "habit."

Sleeping -- Difficulty sleeping may be the result of stress, substance abuse, depression, or illness. Environmental irritants (e.g., noise, odors, light), smoking, eating, alcohol, caffeine, stress, worry, and lack of exercise cause problems with falling asleep, waking repeatedly, and/or failing to go back to sleep. Sufficient sleep (for most people seven to eight hours daily) meets our body's need to rest and repair itself.

Tertiary stress symptoms (Decline)

Ignoring resistance symptoms eventually takes us to a third level of stress: facing physical or mental illness. This level of stress is so widespread that 75% to 90% of all visits to physicians are said to be stress-related. There is also increasing evidence that denying emotional distress by suppressing feelings and impulses leads to health problems, particularly heart disease, cancer, and asthma. Honest verbal expression of emotional distress, taking assertive action, and accepting our feelings and impulses as natural, reduce our stress and help us to achieve better physical health.

-This article was adapted from Growing Ourselves Up: A Guide to Recovery and Self-Esteem, with permission of the author, Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.

Date published: 3/2/00 5:40:44 PM

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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