When life gets increasingly complex, and we are being pulled in so many directions at the same time, it feels like a miracle that we make it through the day. This is stress!
What is this thing called stress?
Walter Canon (1915) described the body’s response to an acute environmental threat as a preparatory “fight or flight” response accompanied by a surge of stress-related hormones. Homeostasis is the body maintaining quiescence, rejuvenation, and low arousal. Hans Selye, the father of stress, introduced this term and described it as a nonspecific response of the body to any demand. He also was the first person to identify the relation between stress and illness. Selye (1956) made an important distinction between the fight or flight response due to an acute threat (a car swerving at you) versus the stress response to chronic nonspecific demands, e.g., driving in heavy traffic. The body’s response and associated outcomes are different too. While we might encounter an acute stressor, those we face now tend to be psychosocial and environmental. While the stressors we experience in the 21st century tend to not threaten our survival, they still wage war on our well-being and physical health. To paraphrase Selye, stress is everything and everything is stress. Stress is a stimulus-response transaction that threatens or limits our ability to cope.
Acute, Chronic and Major and Minor Stressors
Acute stressors may be traumatic or adverse life events. For example, floods, earthquakes, physical assault can be overwhelming and cause psychological and physical health challenges. However, the majority of stressors are chronic and cumulative, and they add up. Everyday hassles like waiting in line, finding a parking spot, and paying bills are stressful. Major stressors, like going through a divorce, is followed by myriad minor stressors. Daily hassles can have a powerful negative effect on psychological well-being and physical health. In fact, daily hassles are more lethal. Individuals who ruminate (repetitively focusing on the cause and effect of stressor) are most vulnerable.
Emotions, Actions, and Thoughts
Stress elicits powerful, often negative emotions (fear, anger, despair) that co-occur with physiological responses (rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, flushed feeling), escape or paralysis in the situation. Distorted thoughts occur. Actions and thoughts in the stressful situation can ameliorate or exacerbate the stress response.
The goal of coping is to learn healthy behaviors that enable you to manage the stressful situation. Unhealthy coping such as consuming drugs and alcohol, giving up, avoidance, and aggression are not workable long-term solutions. To manage stress an alternative values-guided approach is needed which has four action steps.
1. Tackle the stressor head on (approach, do not avoid) with focused action.
2. Learn these healthy coping skills to manage the negative effects of stress:
a. Relaxation to reduce the physiological and emotional stress response.
b. Coping self-talk to replace the negative distorted stress-related thoughts.
3. Use healthy coping skills at the earliest indication of feeling stressed.
4. Daily practice of relaxation and coping self-talk so you are inoculated against the
stressors that occur.
If you need assistance in managing stress, please contact Clinical Counseling Associates or a local mental health provider.