Understanding Stress

To understand stress, we need to look at the events that occur, our thoughts about them, and the way we respond.

Stressors: 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, and experiencing losses. These "life events" can be stress-provoking. We also face many "daily hassles". These are events that occur routinely. They also contribute to the levels of 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.

Coping effectively requires an understanding of the situations we perceive to be stressful. What day-to-day hassles or life events have you experienced recently?

The Stress Response

If we decide that a situation is stressful, we put into play the body's "fight or flight" reaction, causing the release of adrenalin, a natural body chemical. This starts the first stage of the stress response.

We each have a particular way of responding to stress. Some of us have physical signs such as muscle tension and difficulty sleeping (insomnia). Others may have more emotional reactions, such as outbursts of crying or anger. Understanding your response to stressful situations is one of the first steps in developing your ability to lower your stress levels.

Knowing what you do when you are under stress is the first step. To cope with stress, you need to know when it is happening. These signs of stress can give you clues you can use to change your response to stress. The next time you feel that you are getting "stressed", take the time to check your body, your emotions and your behaviour. If you recognize some of your usual signs of stress, then you have a clue that you need to do something to cope.

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 a 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
  • feeling pressured
  • 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.

Serious illnesses such as:
  • heart disease
  • ulcers
  • mental illness
  • insomnia (difficulty sleeping)
  • errors in judgement
  • personality changes

Major Life Event Stressors include:
  • moving
  • leaving school
  • getting married
  • having a baby
  • changing jobs
  • divorce
  • illness
  • experiencing losses
Daily stressors can include:
  • being stuck in traffic
  • conflicts at work
  • conflicts with family members
  • deadlines and multiple work demands
  • the demands of family and work
  • the fast pace of modern life