Stress can be defined as a state we experience when there is a mismatch between
perceived demands and perceived ability to cope. It is the balance between how
we view demands and how we think we can cope with those demands that determines
whether we feel no stress, distress, or eustress.
Stress can also be described aa an adaptive response by a body to changes in the
environment. Stress response evolved to enable man to deal with life-threatening
dangers, such as being confronted by a wild animal. This situation called for the
activation of stress response: stay and fight or turn back and flee.
In our technologically advanced age we don't have to face the same dangers as our
ancestors, but the stress response to various demanding situations we face hasn't
changed: our mind and body still prepare us for fight or flight. Having activated
our body for an immeditate physical response, there is often no need or opportunity
for physical action. We cannot hurry the traffic jam, we cannot flee it either. So
we become impatient, irritated, angry - stressed, as we call it today.
This is where part of the trouble is: activation of stress response without
the physical activity that is meant to follow can be potentially harmful to
The psychological and social threats we face evoke the same response as that of our
ancestors to the physical dangers, but changes in the nature of demands were so
fast that our biology and bodies haven't had time to keep up. So, we are dealing
with today's social demands by using a stress response designed to allow our
ancestors to survive various physical dangers.
Today, the threat of redundancy and unemployment, losing one's income, struggling
to reach the top of the career ladder, job stress, marital problems, family
disharmony, loneliness, financial problems can gnaw away at us over a long period
This means that our body defences are in a constant state of activation in
resisting these threats and demands. This can also lead to ill health and in
some cases, death.
So it is not stress itself that is the problem today. The increased intensity,
number, frequency, pattern and variety of demands placed on the body activates
the stress response in a way that may ultimately become detrimental to health -
this is the problem we face.
Not all stress is bad
When asked to define stress, most people usually refer to its bad side. They describe
stress as an unpleasant experience, for example, being under too much or too
little pressure, being frustrated or bored, being in situations which they
feel unable to control, thinking that they failed in life, going through
divorce, bereavement or financial problems. This in fact, is called distress -
the bad aspect of stress. If left unchecked it can lead to decreased productivity,
and ill health, and can in turn result in headaches, indigestion, frequent colds,
neck and back aches, unhappy relationships.
For the company and organisation, distress can lead to absenteeism, lost
productivity, poor performance, accidents at work, reduced creativity and lack of
innovation. Distress can also be ugly and in extreme cases result in physical
disability, or even death as a result of heart attacks, cancer, anxiety,
depression and nervous breakdown.
Good stress, or eustress
Some people describe stess as exciting, stimulationg and pleasant experience.
They deliberately put themseleves in challenging situations they know they can
handle. This kind of stres is called eustress, or good stress. Stress is an
experience which is unique to each and every one of us What is distressful
for one can be postiviely eustressful for another. For example, an experienced
parachutist will jump without worrying about the potential dangers and enjoy the
thrill of the jump, while an inexperienced one will suffer distress.
The stress balance
When we face and incresased number of demands or view the demands that confront
us as as difficult or threatening, we need to make a judgement about our ability
to cope. If the judgement is: "No, I can't cope", then we can become distressed.
Having too much to do in too little time, dealing with difficult tasks without
adequate training, having too may bills to pay and not engouhg money, worries about
how we will manage if we lose our job,having domestic problemw while undergoing
career changes, etc.
Distress can also happen when we face too few demands to stimulate us and get
bored as a result. In this case, perceived ability to cope outweighs demands.
This situation often happens when people retire or are given jobs which do not
match their abilities.
Eustress can be experienced when our perceived ability to cope outweighs our
perceived demands - this is good imbalance. Eustress gives rise to feelings of
confidence, being in control and able to handle tasks and demands. The stress
response is activated by the right amount to provide the alertness,
the mental and physical performance required to be productive and creative.
Getting the balance right
Because of the way we live today, we are certain to feel distress at some stage
in our lives, and we need to reduce the frequency and extent at which the stress
balance tips into the distress zones.
We can do this by decreasing the number and types of demands and by building up our
coping resources. This will help to avoid or minimise the effects of distressful
We need to learn how to increase our excursions into the eustress zone by getting
the correct balance between the demands and coping resources.
We cannot live a life entirely free of distress, so it is important not to allow
the stress balance to remain permanently in the distress zone and not to go into
this zone too far and too often. Instead, we should aim to use our stress response
to improve our life and peformance by keeping our balance in the normal and
eustress zones. This can be achieved by learning the skills to alter the
balance between demands and coping ability, and this is the basis for
successful stress management.
The term "stress response" describes a series of complex reactions by the
body to any demand it faces. The stress response ensures that the body is always
in a state of readiness to deal with these demands.
Demands can be life threatening, physical, emotional, pleasant or unpleasant: the
body's response must be appropriate for dealing with the type of situation faced.
Different types of stress response are activated to deal with different situations.
There are two main types of stress repsonse:
Any stress response is based on either the alarm (fight or flight) response or
the resistance response, or both. The fight or flight response may be triggered
not just by physcial threats. How often has any one of us found ourselves in a
situation where we want to "run away" mentally and our body prepared itself
for a flight, althogth the situation is not life threatening.
- The alarm reaction which activates the emergency rsponse,
when we are faced with life-threatening situations.
- The resistance reaction which is activated when we face long-term
demands. These demands are usually emotional rather than physical. They may
include caring for one's family, finding and keeping a job, earning a living,
The differences in the extent of activation of stress response depend on how we
interpret the situation. This means that stess itself is not in the environment
but a state within ourselves
The body's response
When stress repsonse is activated, the body produces certain chemicals which alter
the organ activity. Some chemeicals speed up the heart rate, others decrease it.
The type and amount of a prticular messenger required is decided by the brain
which assesses the situation:
All this information is collected by the brain to decide on an appropriate
course of ation. Once the decision has been reached, it is transmitted to a part
of the brain called the hypothalamus which sets in motion the various
chemical messengers required to bring about a response by the body.
- is it life-threatening?
- can it wait?
- can I face up to it?
- am I in control?
- am I angry?
- what did I do in this situation before?
The response takes the following shape:
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system
- On your marks: here's a demand I have to deal with - the brain
collects information, processes it, assesses the situation and decides on a
course of action.
- Get set: preparing to deal with the demand. Brain activates stress
response to a degree relative to the interpreted nature and importance of the
- Go: dealing with the demand. Resulting action depends on how the
situation is interpreted.
The autonomous nervous sytem consists of two separate systems:
The stress response is activated through the Sympathetic nervous system. The role
of the Parasympathetic nervous system is to conserve energy and aid digestion and
protect the body from foreign organisms. Increase in sympathetic activity results
in an increase in heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, quicker and deeper
breathing, while activation of the Parasympathetic nervous system promotes
secretion of gastric juices and saliva, thus aiding digestion, as well as
decrease in heart rate and general relaxation.
- the sympathetic nervous system
- the parasympathetic nervous system
The action of the Sympathetic nervous systsm is brought about mainly by a hormone
called noradrenaline. Parasympathetic action is brought about by a
neurotransmitter called acetylcholine.
The other means by which the brain instructs the body organs to alter their
activity is via the action of hormones called:
The first two hormones are produced by the adrenal medulla (two little triangle
glands lying on top of the kidneys). Cortisol is produced by the adrenal cortex.
The Sympathetic nervous system supplies nerves to adrenal medulla and controls the
release of adrenaline and noradrenaline from it.
Although they are similar in structure, the two hormones have different effects
on the body.
Noradrenaline prepares the body for a fight, or when a sustained effort is
required to achieve control over a situation. Agression, anger and hostility are
the emotional hallmarks of a fighting behaviour.
Adrenaline. On the other hand, if there is fear or uncertainty about how
things will turn out, or doubts about the ability to take control, a decision to
run away may be made. The hypothalamus signals a predominantly adrenanline
secretion, which prepares the body for a fast get-away by incresasing heart rate and
making plenty of energy available for muscular activity.
Both adrenaline and noradrenaline are needed for fighting and fleeing. However, it
is the emotion involved which determines the predominance of one or the other.
Cortisol In situations where demands persist, a sustained release of
cortisol is important in keeping the supply of energy needed by the body
for the effort to face long-term demands. It is also important for healing wounds
in life-threatening situations.
Actions of Adrenaline and Noradrenanline on the body organs
- Alert, quick decision making
- Hearing becomes more acute
- Pupils dilate
- Saliva production reduced
- Lungs: airways dilate, breathing deeper and more rapid
- Gut activity: slowed down
- Heart beats faster
- Fat and glucose mobilised from liver and fat stores
- Spleen: contracts, pouring red blood cells into the circulation
- Kidneys: reduced urine formation
- Blood: clots more easily
- Adrenal medulla releases adrenaline and noradrenaline
- Legs, arms and body muscles tense and blood flow increases
- Hairs stand on end ("goose pimples")
- Skin: sweating and reduced blood flow, resulting in pale colour. Sustained
stress leads to poor skin condition and ageing.
Actions of Cortisol
- Normal levels enhance immune activity
- Excessive levels suppress the immune system
- Reduces allergic response/reactions
- Mobilises glucose and fats from body stores for increased energy production
- Sensitises organs particularly blood vessels, to adrenaline and noradrenaline
- Reduces inflammation
- Aids wound healing