On Stress

What is Stress?

That is the question I had when I started doing work on stress. I knew I had experienced stress, but I didn’t really know what it is, or what was happening to me. Now I do and it makes a big difference.

The first step in reducing your stress is understanding what is happening and why.

Stress is triggered when the pressure on us gets too high, and our internal resources get overwhelmed and can’t handle it. 

At least 75% of Americans say they experience stress of some kind every month, according to research. Most of the time it comes from either money issues, job pressure, or conflict at home.

Stress can also come from any event or thought that makes you fearful, frustrated, angry, or nervous. 

This can trigger your fight or flight response which prepares you to meet the perceived threat. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol (which is our stress hormone) surge and the body goes into high alert mode. Our blood pressure, heartbeat and general alertness increase almost instantly, and blood flows to our extremities (away from our brain) priming us for quick action – to either fight or flee.

This is why it is hard to think clearly, for example, when you are feeling stress – your blood is flowing away from your head.

This stress response mechanism is left over from when we were cavemen and faced frequent life or death threats. While modern life doesn’t typically bring life and death threats this mechanism reacts to many types of lesser modern day “stressors.”

Stress is experienced differently for different people – one person may simply experience a challenge and feel motivated, and the next may experience extreme stress, or even have a breakdown and not be able to function. 

For example, the same roller coaster ride can be terrifying and extremely stressful for some people, and exciting and exhilarating to others. Was the roller coaster itself stressful? No, it is our perception of control which affects us most. Usually it is the people in front who are exhilarated while those in back are terrified. In a roller coaster both those in front and those in back have the same amount of control, but their perception of control is very different.

Research, cited by the American Institute of Stress found that a sense of having little or no control is almost always stressful. And often our perception of the situation is not accurate, just like the people in the back of the roller coaster. When they were moved to the front their experience was very different, as they felt they were in control.

What causes stress?

Stress can be triggered by any event or thought that makes us feel fearful, threatened, frustrated, angry, or nervous.

Researchers say that no event itself is inherently stressful. Stress comes from our reaction to the situation or event and not the situation or event itself.

Our stress reaction is shaped by past experiences, memories, and beliefs. Other factors that affect how we reaction include our level of self-esteem, emotional resilience, and experience and skills in dealing with pressure.

A sense of not being in control is the primary underlying factor in stress and many negative emotional states. 

Sources: some material adapted from “Hypnosis for Change”, by Josie Hadley and Carol Staudacher, and The American Institute of Stress.