The Phases of Stress
What is stress?
Life stressors involve changes in your environment that your
central nervous system must adapt to during the course of daily living.
Stressors include either positive or negative life events (e.g., death, divorce,
new job, new house, new baby) that require you to adapt to these changes in your
life. Stress results when pressures, challenges, or demands in life exceed your
coping abilities. Stress can manifest itself in physical, emotional, or behavioral symptoms.
Phases of the stress experience
There are three basic phases of the stress experience. Understanding these phases can help you to identify and cope with the stress in your life.
Stressors trigger your body's response to stress. This physiological response is also known as the "fight or flight" response in your nervous system. Symptoms include:
- Increase in heart rate and blood pressure
- Decreased blood flow to the extremities
- Slowed digestion
The stress response is meant temporarily to improve your chances
of surviving a physical threat to your safety (i.e., outrunning a predator), but
becomes dangerous to your health if activated for prolonged periods of time.
Troublesome events that can activate the stress experience
include death, divorce, illness, conflict, job loss, and retirement. Other
negative stressors are worries, memories, or images that are produced internally
by our minds. Positive life events also trigger the stress response in our
bodies. These include marriage, birth of a child, purchase of a new home, or
starting a new job.
Interpretation of stressors affects our ability to cope with
stress. Our beliefs, attitudes, and values determine how we interpret and react
to potentially stressful situations. If we tend to see those situations as
threats, pressures, demands, or catastrophes, we compromise our ability to cope.
The resulting feeling of helplessness sets us up for a variety of unpleasant
responses to stress.
Reaction to stress might create or worsen physical, emotional, or behavioral symptoms if the fight or flight response is activated chronically over time.
- Physical — high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, strokes, rashes,
migraine, tension headaches, infertility, irritable bowel
- Emotional — anxiety, depression, anger, forgetfulness, panic attacks
- Behavioral — overeating, poor appetite, drug abuse, excessive smoking,
irritability, social withdrawal, insomnia
What to do about stress
There are several things that you can do to decrease the impact
of stressors in your life. Problem-solving prevents the recurrence of a
stressful experience. Managing your time better reduces stress by creating a
balance between difficult and pleasurable experiences.
It is important to become aware of your thoughts and attitudes
when you feel stressed. Once you are aware of the stressful slant you are
placing on the situation, you are able to develop ways to re-evaluate those
situations in ways that make them less threatening and more manageable.
Relaxation techniques, exercise, leisure, and nutritional
awareness all play a part in improving your physical, behavioral, and emotional
response to stress. By increasing your physical resistance to stress and
learning how to relax yourself, you can reduce your vulnerability to stressful
events. Developing a network of social supports and adopting good self-care
habits serve as buffers against the inevitable stresses of daily living.
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