Daily hassles, poor sleep, loud noise, too much to do, missed meals, missed appointments, overdue bills, unkind words from a friend or co-worker, car troubles, disease or injury, getting fired; death of a friend, acquaintance, or pet are all examples of loses we experience as a normal part of life. Stress is our effort to resist the loss and restore equilibrium.
- Resisting loss.
- A reaction to feeling helpless to avoid loss.
- A physical and mental response to a challenging or threatening situation.
- The energy and personal resources required to cope.
- The resources required to restore equilibrium.
- The cost of coping.
- The resources required to counteract a stressor.
Stress is the expenditure of resources required to offset or counteract—that is to cope with—a stressor and restore equilibrium.
Stress is the organism's (person's) internal response to a stressor. A stressor is a stimulus or situation that upsets the equilibrium or normal quiescent state of an organism (person). Stress expends resources to restore an equilibrium that has been upset by the stressor. This is called coping. Burnout is an exhaustion of resources as a result of chronic stress. Trauma is an overwhelming stress that exceeds our ability to cope. We worry from the time we notice a stressor until we begin to cope with it.
These terms can be understood by thinking about water flooding into a basement. The flow of water into the basement is a stressor—it upsets the original equilibrium condition of a dry basement. An initial appraisal determines that the water has to be removed from the basement. Pumping water out is the coping strategy chosen to restore the equilibrium. The resources required to run the pump, e.g. electric power, is the stress on the system that is required to respond to and counteract the stressor. Burnout could occur if resources to run the pump become exhausted. This could happen, for example if the batteries in the pump run dead, or the pump motor burns out. Trauma could occur, overwhelming the pump's capacity, if a large surge of water quickly entered the basement. As the basement begins to dry out, there is an opportunity to reappraise the situation. This reappraisal recognizes that some coping strategies are better than others because they require fewer resources to maintain. For example, it may require fewer resources to stop the flow of water into the basement, perhaps by patching the wall, than to constantly pump the water out. Stopping the flow of water reduces the stress required to maintain a dry basement. The reassessment was successful in reducing the on-going stress level.
Stress allows us to meet and overcome challenges and problems. Stress is essential to counteracting many inevitable stressors.
Stress and Emotions
Stress and emotions often occur simultaneously. They both result from appraisals of the stressor. The personal meaning of the stressor event determines which particular emotion results. The intensity of the emotion depends on the importance of the event. The stress level depends on the impact of the stressor. This determines the particular resources required to overcome or counteract the stressor for a the chosen coping strategy.
Stressors are everywhere. The Social Readjustment Rating Scale(SRRS) provides a list of major life events that are common stressors and provides a relative intensity rating for each.
Other important stressors, not listed on the SRRS, include: death of a child, the deterioration of old-age, immigration, war, racism, natural disasters, poverty, isolation, anarchy, terrorism, many conditions that prevent needs from being met such as hunger, thrust, isolation, boredom, alienation, loud noise, chaos, noxious agents, oppression, trespass, and many others.
In addition to the major life events listed in the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, daily hassles are also significant stressors. These include time pressure, security threats, financial difficulties, household problems and frustrations, school or job-related problems, neighborhood annoyances, and health problems. Lost keys, computer crashes, traffic jams, missed appointments, waiting in lines, rude people, spilled drinks, malfunctioning equipment, and other hassles often fill our days.
In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned to roll a large rock up a hill forever. The rock was a relentless stressor balanced by the stress of his efforts to overcome this never-ending hassle. He had to expend unending resources to keep rolling it upwards. He suffered the chronic stress of his endless struggle. We have the capacity to solve life's daily problems and cope with ever-present stressors.
Stressors are additive. A stress response is required to counteract each stressor. These stress responses all draw on a common pool of resources; our physiology and attention. That resource pool is only partially renewable. Therefore as stressors accumulate, stress accumulates and coping resources are eventually exhausted. At that point we are “at the end of our rope” and can no longer cope.
Organisms seek to maintain a stable internal equilibrium using a dynamic process called homeostasis. Homeostasis regulates body temperature, heart rate, blood sugar levels, blood chemistry, and many other microscopic and macroscopic internal body conditions essential for our on-going survival. Homeostatic regulation allows an organism to function effectively in a broad range of environmental conditions. Stressors challenge homeostasis because they upset equilibrium. Stress is the body's effort required to restore equilibrium through homeostasis.
Stress takes its toll on our bodies and minds. Our bodies and minds provide the resources of stress; the resources required to restore equilibrium.
General Adaptation Syndrome
Researcher Hans Selye discovered that organisms respond to serious, chronic stressors in a similar general way. He named that response the general adaptation syndrome. It describes a prolonged compensation phase of homeostasis that is the general response of an organism to the disequilibrium caused by a stressor. Organisms first recognize the stressor, become aroused, and then marshal resources to resist it. They resist and successfully counteract the stressor as long as resources remain available. If the stressor persists long enough, they will eventually exhaust their limited supply of coping resources. They are then overcome by the stressor. These three adaptation stages are described in more detail in in this table:
|Stage 1: Alarm
||Stage 2: Resistance
||Stage 3: Exhaustion
|General arousal caused by:
• Increase of adrenal hormones.
• reaction of sympathetic nervous system
If the stressor remains, the organism moves to Stage 2.
|Arousal subsides because of:
• decrease in adrenal output
• counter reaction of the parasympathetic nervous system.
In this stage resources are continuously expended to counteract the stressor.
If the stressor remains, the organism eventually moves to Stage 3.
|General arousal of stage 1 reappears.
A powerful parasympathetic response opposes arousal.
If the stressor is not removed in time the organism exhausts and eventually dies.
Loss, Threat, and Challenge
We readily recognize many different types of emotions. Are there different types of stress? In 1974 researcher Hans Selye proposed distinguishing between good stress and bad stress. He used the word distress to describe the physiological reaction to adverse stressors such as disease or injury. He coined the word eustress to describe the reaction to positive events such as the birth of a child or going on vacation. Unfortunately, subsequent research has not clarified this distinction. Richard Lazarus draws a distinction between three types of stress resulting from these three categories of stressors:
- Harm / Loss—Damage or loss that has already taken place. A loss in the past
- Threat—Harm or loss that has not yet occurred. A potential future loss.
- Challenge—The persistence and self-confidence to overcome obstacles and achieve some future benefit.
Some conditions, such as poverty, chronic incurable disease, or living in high crime neighborhoods, are ever-present stressors. The result is chronic stress. Depending on individual differences and the resources available for coping with such chronic conditions, some people are able to manage well and take it all in stride while others suffer significant adverse effects.
There are several techniques that may help reduce stress. Many of them work by reducing the activation residual from the GAS alarm stage.
Trauma describes a level of stress that exceeds our ability to cope. Trauma is overwhelming, and often challenges or shatters our core beliefs or values. Trauma victims may become helpless, feel they have lost control over their lives, and may begin to believe they are unworthy.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to an extreme stressor such as a terrifying ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.
When people cannot adequately cope with a catastrophic event they are in crisis. People often require some reorganization of their personality structure to resume normal life after suffering a crisis.
- “Is everything as urgent as your stress would imply?” ~ Carrie Latet
- “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” ~ Chinese Proverb
- “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi
- “When we are in a good mood, stress is transformed into interest.” ~ Todd Kashdan
Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis, by Richard S. Lazarus
Psychology: Core Concepts, by Phillip G. Zimbardo, Ann L. Weber, Robert L. Johnson
The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, by Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.
The Stress of Life, by Hans Selye
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky