Imagine that you are walking home from work through a park when suddenly, from behind a hedge, comes a very large and growling dog. The dog appears ready to attack. What do you think, feel, do, in this situation? What are some of the sensations you have in your body? Take a moment to close your eyes and list the sensations you feel in your body as you imagine it. What you have just recreated or remembered is the body’s stress response.
This is the bodily, emotional, and psychological symptoms that occur when experiencing a stressor. The stress response is an evolutionary adaptation for mobilizing the body to deal with serious physical threats, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” response. The stress response is multifaceted and includes:
- Bodily chemicals (fatty acids, cortisone) and hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline) released to stimulate metabolic and other activities as messengers from the brain
- Increase of fuels released (glucose, sugars, fats, proteins) for energy
- Breathing rate increases (for increased fuel burning, metabolism)
- Quicker heart rate with increased blood volume, higher blood pressure, and dilated blood vessels to get energy and oxygen to muscles
- Perspiration reduces heat from higher use of energy
- Stomach and intestinal activity reduce (not needed)
- Release of clotting substances to reduce loss of blood
- Increased immune activity to prepare to fight off infections
- Natural pain killers (endorphins) released so we can reduce pain to keep going
This stress response is very helpful in responding to emergency situations. It increases our chances of survival in a crisis situation. The difficulty is that for many of us, in a modern society, our stress response is triggered by situations that don’t require it (such as traffic jams or loud music emanating from our neighbour’s house). It can also stay activated for a prolonged period of time (such as final exam time or the 2 weeks preceding a deadline at work). When the stress response is activated for a more prolonged period, over and above what our bodies can tolerate, we see slightly different signs of stress:
Signs and Symptoms of Prolonged Stress
- raised heart rate
- increased blood pressure
- raised blood clotting rate
- increased ventilation
- increased consumption of alcohol, coffee, cigarettes
- loss of appetite or excessive eating
- loss of sexual interest
- tendency to experience accidents
- tiredness/difficulty sleeping
- muscle tension particularly in the neck and shoulder muscles
- indigestion, constipation, diarrhea
- difficulty in concentrating and tendency to worry
- impatience; feeling irritable and easily roused to anger
If the stress response is very intense and prolonged it can cause:
- Deterioration of blood vessels
- Formation of dangerous clots in vessels
- Organ breakdown
- Narrowed attention
- Extreme irritability
- Disrupted social relationships
As you can probably guess from the list above, when we are asked to cope with more stress than our bodies can tolerate, we increase our risk/vulnerability for various illnesses, chronic diseases, and mental health problems.
So far we’ve talked about the body’s stress response. What causes this stress response? Stressors! A stressor is a probable cause of stress from a physical or psychological perceived threat. In order for something to be a stressor for you, you must perceive or believe that it poses a threat or a danger to you in some way. Some stressors are almost universal. To most adults living in an urban center, a vehicle coming toward us, seemingly out of control, is a threat. Other stressors are more personal—your “difficult” colleague at work may be a stressor to you, but not to someone else who also works there. Thus, our perception of stressors can strongly influence how stressful they are to us (i.e. how much they trigger our stress response).
There are many different types of stressors that flow into our lives. Some of these are major life events and flow into our lives with the power of a river. Others are a constant trickle—streams of daily hassles.
River of Life Events
Our lives are a series of events—birth, going to kindergarten, playing on the soccer team, first job, romantic relationships, having children, buying a house, losing a close friend, etc. These events vary in the extent to which they are in or out of our control.
- Uncontrollable: Events which happen to us, which we cannot control. Examples include acts of nature (a tornado tears down our house), illness of a family member, and company downsizing. You probably know the saying (or some variation of it), “Life happens.” In many ways that summarizes the uncontrollable aspects of the river of life events.
- Semi-controllable: Events which we can help to make happen, such as getting hired for a job, getting married, and moving to a new city.
Later, when we talk about changing the stressors in our lives, it is important to remember this distinction. We can do very little to change the uncontrollable stressors in our lives – we can only try to improve our body’s capacity to cope with stress, and have the best attitude we can toward the situation (e.g. optimism and hope). The semi-controllable stressors, however, may be more amenable to change, and working through possible changes in those areas can be very helpful.
It is also important to note that on this web site we are focusing on how the individual can respond to stressors, but there are, of course, many times that we as a society need to change to eliminate a stressor. For example, deaths resulting from drunk driving are tremendously stressful. The movement, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, has worked hard at a societal level to reduce the incidence of this stressor. This type of societal change is absolutely vital—we don’t want to learn to cope well with bad situations that could be changed.
Streams of Daily Hassles
Often it’s not just the big stressors, such as the death of someone close to us, that result in a lot of stress, but it is also the daily hassles. The accumulation of small stressors, annoyances, and inconveniences, and how we handle them, can be quite harmful for us. Examples of daily hassles include a long commute to work, a cold and drafty house, no nearby grocery store, an appliance that works “sometimes”, and noisy neighbours.
If you’re wondering how many stressors are in your life (both the river of life events and the streams of daily hassles) or how your perceived stress level compares to that of other Canadians, check out the stress questionnaires in the self-assessment section.
Controlling the Flow: Our Role in Reducing Personal Stress
Although there are many sources of stress (i.e., stressors), there is always a mediating factor, which is our mind and our way of thinking about situations and life events. We have a large role in what will produce a stress response in ourselves.
Unrealistic expectations about ourselves or about others can be unhealthy (i.e., they create stress). Some examples of unrealistic beliefs are:
- I should never burden others with my problems or fears (Self).
- I should never have conflicts with others.
- No one cares about anyone else (others).
- You are bound to get hurt in a relationship; it makes no difference how you try to change it (others).
- The showing of any kind of emotion is wrong, a sign of weakness, and not allowable (self).
- Everyone must like me.
These are scripts, which we have in our head, about how we believe life “should” be for us and for others. To see how these beliefs can be a stressor in our lives, consider the following example. Paul is someone who believes that everyone should like him. One day Paul goes to a department store and buys a plastic bowl. It seems like good deal at the time—only $4.99. When he brings it home, however, he drops it off the counter and it cracks. Paul decides to take it back. He reasons that even if it was only $4.99, it should have been able to withstand a fall from counter height. When he attempts to take it back, however, the customer service representative challenges him. She tells Paul that he can’t expect to drop a bowl and not have it break. Paul points out that the bowl is plastic, and the customer service representative finally agrees to refund his money, but she is curt and brusque, and refuses to make further eye contact. Paul is bothered for several days about the incident. He is bothered that the customer service representative appeared to dislike him at the end of the transaction, and he questions whether he did the right thing. If you imagine a similar type of scenario replayed countless times in Paul’s life, you can begin to imagine the amount of stress these types of unrealistic beliefs can create for us.
The key to changing this source of stress in our lives is to identify our unrealistic beliefs, and to challenge them. Let’s say that Paul begins to wonder why returning the bowl bothered him so much. He thinks about his reaction to the event, and notices that it is similar to his emotional reaction when he turned down a friend’s request for a loan. He realizes that in both instances he was worried about the other person’s reaction, and what they thought of him. He begins to recognize that this is true in many situations. When he asks himself what was the same across the situations, he discovers that it is very important to him that everyone likes him. When Paul looks at that belief carefully, he realizes that it is not realistic—not everyone likes everyone else! He resolves to begin to challenge this belief, and to substitute in a healthier belief, “I will continue to act in a respectful way towards people, but not everyone will always like me. It is okay if not everyone likes me.” Paul gradually incorporates this new belief into his view of himself and the world, and he begins to feel less anxious and stressed, and more able to be himself.
A worksheet for this process is located in the “how to” section.
There are a number of things that we can do to increase our body’s stress tolerance, just on a physical level. For example, the more fit our cardiovascular system is, the more capacity it has to respond and recover to the stress response. Thus, building regular physical exercise into your daily/weekly routine can significantly improve your capacity to tolerate stress (see the In Motion website for more information on how you can become more active).
Good nutrition will help your body to recover better from the effects of stress on the body. Most of us know the basics, but still eat too few fruits and vegetables, and too much fat, sugar, and salt laden foods. Have a look at the Canada Food Guide for tips on eating healthier!
A regular good night’s sleep can do wonders for improving our body’s ability to heal and restore itself for the next day. Many of us function on too little sleep—the average adult functions best on 7-10 hours of sleep per night, but many of us get only 5-6 hours. Check out the Canada Sleep Society’s website for more information and resources.
Minimizing caffeine intake (2-3 cups of coffee or less per day) is helpful in increasing our stress tolerance. Although small amounts of caffeine can help our attention and concentration, larger amounts of caffeine can make us more irritable, anxious, and stress-prone. It can also interfere with sleep. Cutting out nicotine will improve your cardiovascular health, and therefore improve your stress tolerance. Quitting can be stressful, but in the long run your body will be better able to cope with what life sends you. Alcohol is fine in moderation, but if it becomes your main way of coping with stress, it’s time to cut back and look for some alternatives.
There are other things we can do to improve our stress tolerance, such as various forms of relaxation/meditation, socializing, and talking with friends. These areas will be covered in more detail in Relaxation Cove and The City of Social Connection on this website.
If you wish to make changes in these areas to improve your stress capacity, you can use the Solution focused Goal-Setting Exercise in the Hope “How To” Section on this web site. Good luck!