eClass 1: A Primer on Stress

Stress results from an imbalance between demands and resources[i]

Stress is the psychological, physiological and behavioral response by an individual when they perceive a lack of equilibrium between the demands placed upon them and their ability to meet those demands, which, over time, leads to ill-health[ii]

Stress occurs when pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope.

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make us feel threatened or upset our balance in some way. When we sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting us. When working properly, it helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergencies, stress can save our lives – giving us extra strength to defend ourselves, for example, or spurring us to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.

The stress response also helps us rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps us on our toes during a presentation at work, sharpens our concentration when we are attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives us to study for an exam when we would rather be watching TV.

But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to our health, our mood, our productivity, our relationships, and our quality of life.

The Physiological Basis of Stress

When we perceive a threat, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action.

Our heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and our senses become sharper. These physical changes increase our strength and stamina, speed our reaction time, and enhance our focus – preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

clip_image001The anterior hypothalamus produces sympathetic arousal of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is an automatic system that controls the heart, lungs, stomach, blood vessels and glands. Due to its action we do not need to make any conscious effort to regulate our breathing or heart beat. The ANS consists of two different systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Essentially, the parasympathetic nervous system conserves energy levels. It increases bodily secretions such as tears, gastric acids, mucus and saliva which help to defend the body and help digestion. Chemically, the parasympathetic system sends its messages by a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine which is stored at nerve endings.

Unlike the parasympathetic nervous system which aids relaxation, the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action. In a stressful situation, it quickly does the following:

  • Increases strength of skeletal muscles
  • Decreases blood clotting time
  • Increases heart rate
  • Increases sugar and fat levels
  • Reduces intestinal movement
  • Inhibits tears, digestive secretions
  • Relaxes the bladder
  • Dilates pupils
  • Increases perspiration
  • Increases mental activity
  • Inhibits erection/vaginal lubrication
  • Constricts most blood vessels but dilates those in heart/leg/arm muscles
Sources of Stress
  Top Ten Stressful Life Events[iii]
1 Spouse’s death
2 Divorce
3 Marriage separation
4 Jail term
5 Death of a close relative
6 Injury or illness
7 Marriage
8 Fired from job
9 Marriage reconciliation
10 Retirement

The potential causes of stress are numerous and highly individual. What causes stress depends, at least in part, on our perception of it. Something that is stressful to us may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it.

For example, our morning commute may make us anxious and tense because we worry that traffic will make us late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music or talk radio while they drive.

The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on us or forces us to adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.

Common external causes of stress
· Major life changes

· Work

· Relationship difficulties

· Financial

· Being too busy

· Children and family

Common internal causes of stress

Not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be self-generated:

· Inability to accept uncertainty

· Pessimism

· Negative self-talk

· Unrealistic expectations, perfectionism

How Does Stress Affect the Body?

The body does not distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When we are stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, our body reacts just as strongly as if we were facing a life-or-death situation.

If we have a lot of responsibilities and worries, our emergency stress response may be “on” most of the time. The more our body’s stress system is activated, the easier it is to trip and the harder it is to shut off.

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in our body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving us more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Common physical signs of stress
· Pain of any kind

· Heart disease

· Digestive problems

· Sleep problems

· Depression

· Obesity

· Autoimmune diseases

· Skin conditions, such as eczema


How Does Stress Affect the Mind?

Our ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including the quality of our relationships, our general outlook on life, our emotional intelligence, and genetics.

More specifically, our level of mental stress is affected by:

· Our support network – A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated we are, the greater our vulnerability to stress.

· Our sense of control – If we have confidence in yourself and our ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it is easier to take stress in stride. People who are vulnerable to stress tend to feel like things are out of their control.

· Our attitude and outlook – Stress-hardy people have an optimistic attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, accept that change is a part of life, and believe in a higher power or purpose.

· Our ability to deal with our emotions. We are extremely vulnerable to stress if we do not know how to calm and soothe yourself when we are feeling sad, angry, or afraid. The ability to bring our emotions into balance helps we bounce back from adversity. 

· Our knowledge and preparation – The more we know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if we go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if we were expecting to bounce back immediately.

Consequences of Chronic Stress and Inappropriate Stress Response

Psychologist Connie Lillas[iv] uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they are overwhelmed by stress:

· FIGHT: Foot on the gas – An angry or agitated stress response. We are heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.

· FLIGHT: Foot on the brake – A withdrawn or depressed stress response. We shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.

· FREEZE: Foot on both – A tense and frozen stress response. We “freeze” under pressure and cannot do anything. We look paralyzed, but under the surface we are extremely agitated.

Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms
Cognitive Symptoms Emotional Symptoms
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms Behavioral Symptoms
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)


[i] R. S. Lazarus and S. Folkman (1984). Stress, Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer.

[ii] S. Palmer (1989). Occupational stress. The Health and Safety Practitioner, 7, (8), 16-18.

[iii] Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory,

[iv] Lillas, C., & Turnbull, J. (2009). Infant/Child Mental Health, Early Intervention, and Relationship-Based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice: WW Norton & Company.

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