Understanding Stress

To understand stress, we need to look at the events that occur, our thoughts about them, and the way we respond. Situations that are considered stress-provoking are known as stressors. There are many major events that occur in our lives: moving, leaving school, changing jobs, experiencing losses, etc. We, also, face many “daily hassles”. These are events that occur routinely. They also contribute to the stress that we experience. Daily hassles include events such as being stuck in traffic, deadlines, conflicts with family members, and dealing with busy city life. Between life events and day-to-day hassles, we are faced with many stress-provoking situations each day. Our attitude towards these situations determines our response.

(A) Stress Response

Our bodies are designed, pre-programmed if you wish, with a set of automatic responses to deal with stress. The body’s “pre-programmed” response to stress is identified in three stages: alarm-resistance-exhaustion. Exposure to the stimulus results in the release of hormones and chemicals whose purpose is to create appropriate changes. It is cancelled as soon as the stressor is withdrawn. If exposure to the stressor persists the body will adapt by developing a resistance which serves it well at the time. Such resistance takes a toll and will not last forever.

As body resources become depleted a stage of exhaustion takes over. Together these stages make up Selye’s “general adaptation syndrome”. This system is very effective for the short term “fight or flight” response which provides us with the adrenaline rush we need when faced with an immediate danger. The problem is that our bodies deal with all types of stress in the same way. Experiencing stress for long periods of time (such as lower level but constant stressors at work) will activate this system, but it doesn’t get the chance to “turn off” and the following symptoms become pronounced:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased metabolism (e.g., faster heartbeat, and faster respiration)
  • Decrease in protein synthesis, intestinal movement (digestion), immune and allergic response systems
  • Increased cholesterol and fatty acids in blood for energy production systems
  • Localized inflammation (redness, swelling, heat and pain)
  • Faster blood clotting
  • Increased production of blood sugar for energy and stomach acids

Stress response, often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, is your body’s rapid and automatic switch into “high gear.” It’s easy to imagine how this reaction helps you deal with a physical threat. You need the energy, speed, concentration and agility either to protect yourself or to run as fast as possible. When you encounter such a threat, the hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, situated on top your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones — the most abundant being adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose. The stress-response system is self-regulating. It decreases hormone levels and enables your body to return to normal once a crisis has passed. As levels of the hormones in your bloodstream decline, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal, and other systems resume their regular activities.

But physical threats are not the only events that trigger the stress response. Psychological “threats” — such as the stress associated with work, interpersonal relationships, major life changes, illness or the death of a loved one — can set off the same alarm system. The less control you have over these potentially stress-inducing events and the more uncertainty they create, the more likely you are to feel stressed. Even the typical day-to-day demands of living can contribute to your body’s stress response.

Many of our modern stressful circumstances, unlike most physical threats, tend to be prolonged. Consequently, you may be running on the fight-or-flight reaction longer than it’s intended to operate. What’s good for your body in a short-term crisis can be very harmful over long periods.

The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes, increasing your risk of obesity, insomnia, digestive problems, heart disease, depression, memory impairment, physical illnesses and other complications.

(B) Stages of Stress

In response to stressful events, you can experience one, two or all of the following stages:

Stage 1: Mobilization of Energy

All bodily activity is increased in response to a stressor that is frightening, such as a near car accident. This starts the body’s “fight-flight” reaction, causing the release of adrenalin. You feel your heart pounding and your palms feel sweaty. This is called primary stress.

It can also be the result of situations where you choose to put yourself under stress (e.g. the night before your wedding). This is called secondary stress.


  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Decreased digestion rate, creating butterflies and indigestion

Stage 2: Exhaustion or Consuming Energy

If there is no escape from Stage 1, the body will begin to release stored sugars and fats, using up its bodily resources.


  • Feeling driven and pressured
  • Insomnia (difficulty sleeping)
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Increase in smoking, coffee drinking and/or alcohol consumption
  • Anxiety
  • Memory loss
  • Acute illnesses such as colds and flu

Stage 3: Draining Energy Stores

If the stressful situation is not resolved, you may become chronically stressed. The body’s need for energy resources exceeds its ability to produce them.


  • Heart disease
  • Ulcers
  • Mental illness
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Judgment errors
  • Personality changes