What Is Stress?
Stress is a major factor involved in anxiety, depression, chronic pain, insomnia, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, etc. If it’s a mental health or physical health problem it’s likely that stress plays some role in the cause, or continuation, of the problem. At Legacy Counseling Service in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, we help people with all of the above recognize stress, understand how stress is contributing to their problem, and develop ways to decrease that stress. Take a stress test to see how much stress you’ve been under in the past year, and then read on to learn more about how stress affects us. But, before I delve deeper into what stress is, here is a quick overview:
Stress can be thought of as wear and tear from life circumstances that are beyond your ability to effectively cope. Stress is not just a single thing; it has multiple components and comes from many different places, which are two reasons why it can be hard to decrease. Here are six aspects of stress:
- The stressor itself (events or situations)
- How we view the stressful stressor
- Our physical response to the stressor (fight or flight response)
- How stress effects our body and our emotions
- How stress effects mental functioning (memory lapses, difficulty concentrating, difficulty thinking creatively, etc.)
- Poor coping
Let’s break down these 6 components.
The Stress Event or Situation
Events and situations can be stressful regardless of whether it’s negative or positive. For example, having a baby is positive, yet stressful. Starting a new business is positive, yet stressful. Losing a spouse is negative and stressful. Moving across the country may be positive and negative (depending on the reason for the move) and is stressful.
So, you can see that not everything that is stressful is negative. Many people I work with don’t recognize that even good, exciting things in their lives are causing them to feel stress and that stress still needs to be managed effectively.
Some aspects of the stressful event or situation may make it harder to deal with: the unpredictability of the event, and the uncontrollability of it, the undesirability of it, the magnitude of it, and the number of stressful events in a short period of time (clustering). When something big happens that we aren’t expecting, we have little actual control over it, and that we didn’t want to happen, we will probably cope poorly and have a more severe stress response. Add on the clustering aspect of having multiple stressful things happen at one time and we can probably expect to have some difficulty dealing with everything.
I experienced some aspects of the above not too long ago when, over a 6-month period, I experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of my stepdad, was adjusting to a new job, working on preparing my current home to be ready for renters, preparing to move to Oklahoma, starting up my private practice in Broken Arrow, getting ready with a major holiday, grieving the changes in my work, social, and spiritual life in Florida and adjusting to life in Oklahoma. It was a lot of change in a very short period of time….I was stressed! You can read about the anxiety I experienced when starting my private practice here.
How We View Stress
There are two main ways in which we tend to view stress:
- How high are the stakes? Are my wants or needed endangered? Do I feel threatened or do I feel like I will potentially be threatened? Am I viewing this stress as a challenge with some possibility of good?
- What are my options for coping? What things are within my circle of control or influence? What can I do about this stressful situation? If we are using cognitive distortions such as black and white thinking, overgeneralizing, or catastrophizing then we are likely to believe we have limited options for coping and will feel more stressed.
Physical Response to Stress
By nature, our body produces a cascade of internal events that prepare us for action. This is called the Fight or Flight response.
The fight or flight response can be triggered by emergencies and non-emergencies….basically by things that really are dangerous to us (a group of motorcyclist speeding past us on the highway), or that we perceive are dangerous to us (e.g., being late for work is a perceived danger because that could result in a write up which results in my job being less secure). Although the fight or flight response is not designed to last for more than 15 minutes or so, the fast pace of our lives often results in chronic activation of the fight or flight response. We can become so used to these elevated physical reactions we don’t recognize them as a sign that we are stressed.
How Stress Affects Our Body and Emotions
As I just mentioned, chronic stress means that the body’s natural stress response, the fight or flight system, is chronically elevated. This is not a good thing. Our bodies are not designed to be under constant pressure. It would be like driving your car at 100mp for days on end. After a while, your tires would wear out, your engine would overheat, your oil would get dirty, and you would run out of gas, etc. Your car just wouldn’t run as it was designed to. When we have constant stress and pressure, our bodies become more susceptible to minor and major illnesses like colds, allergies, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, etc.
Just as our physical bodies become more vulnerable to illness, our emotional states do as well. Anxiety, depression, irritability, anger, fear…. these are all common emotional reactions to stress. Working to understanding your situation, through prayer and meditation, talking with a friend, therapeutic writing, or counseling can help you figure out how to cope. If not, the stress response will continue to elevate and we can get stuck in a depressive or anxious cycle.
How Stress Affects Mental Functioning
Many times people come in for counseling with concerns about not being able to concentrate, remember things, not having patience with people, or missing minor things at work or at home. There could be many reasons for these complaints, one of which may be stress. The reason we struggle with mental functioning when we are under stress is that different tasks require different levels of mental arousal, and the internal fight or flight response borrows energy from different areas of our body and brain to do what it needs to do. So….when we are under stress and can’t remember a minor thing that’s because the body and brain do not see this minor thing as important to focus on.
How Poor Coping Affects Stress
Coping is the actions we take to attempt to change the situation, or ourselves, to improve our ability to handle the stressor(s). But, the real question is, how well do we function within our coping? So, how well do we complete and continue the actions needed to really help us deal with the stressful situation? A one-time action at saying “no” to something is very different than developing a habit of asking yourself “if I say yes to this what am I saying no to?” and establishing priorities in your life. Or, working on improving your sleep and giving up after a week is not really effective coping and will keep chronic stress at a high level. Effective coping means recognizing, implementing, and adopting a long-term perspective and lifestyle changes on how to manage your reaction to stress.
So, as you can see stress is much more complex than we typically make it out to be. Because it has some many components, it can be really helpful to move the stress out of your head by writing, or talking, about it. Mental health Counseling can be really effective in this regard as counselors and psychologists really work to help you uncover the causes or chronic stress and help you identify realistic coping strategies that you can function well in for the long term. Well-meaning friends might just tell you to “get a massage,” “have a glass of wine,” or “relax” to handle stress. Although these strategies may be helpful in the short term they are rarely helpful in the long-term.
Keep an eye out for our future blogs on various ways to effectively cope with stress and improve your day to day functioning! If you are interested in discussing your stress, or any other difficulty you are having, contact us at 918-505-4367 to schedule a free 30-minute consultation or to make your first mental health counseling appointment.
Dr. Leedy, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Legacy Counseling Service. She serves clients in Broken Arrow, Tulsa, and throughout Oklahoma. She manages her stress with regular BodyPump and Zumba workouts, experimenting with clean cooking techniques (much to the disdain of her kids), reading, and spending time with friends and family.