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Understanding and learning more about Stress

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Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many people, stress is so common that it has become normal way of living. Stress is an every day fact of life. Stress isn’t always bad. In fact, stress is not only desirable it is also essential to life.  In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. Think of the last time you have to go for an interview or the hours before you set of to play a football match.  you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price.

If you regularly find yourself feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects. Remember when you’re constantly running in acute stress mode, your mind and body pay the price.

In this information guide you can learn more about the following:

  • What is stress?
  • Effects of Toxic Stress?
  • How much stress is too much?
  • Causes of Stress
  • Signs and Symptoms of Stress overload
  • Dealing with Stress


What is stress?

Stress can mean different things to different people. However, it is helpful to start with some definition that will help our minds make sense of the impact that stress can have on our mind, body and behaviours. Stress is a normal physical and emotional response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real (being chased down the road by a robber) or imagined (worrying about something that might happen, results of a blood test) – the body’s defences kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.

Lets learn more about the Body’s Stress Response

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

Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus – preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. In this instance stress is deem helpful. If the body’s stress response is “activated” or “on” constantly then it begins to take its toll on the mind and body.

Function of stress Response

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you.

When working properly, it helps you stay focused, vigorous, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life – giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.

The stress response also helps you rise to meet challenges.

Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV.


Effects of Chronic/Toxic Stress

But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life. This stress can be called Toxic and very damaging to our minds and body.

If one is constantly exposed to stressful situations one’s body does not get enough time to recover to function in a relaxed manner and a person then goes from emergency stress to a state of chronic stress i.e. the body functions in an ongoing tense state/ ongoing knot.


How much stress is too much? Know your own limits?

Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people roll with the punches, while others crumble at the slightest obstacle or frustration. Some people even seem to thrive on the excitement and challenge of a high-stress lifestyle.

Things that influence your stress tolerance level

  • Your 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 you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
  • Your sense of control – If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. People who are vulnerable to stress tend to feel like things are out of their control.
  • Your attitude and outlook – Stress-hardy people have an optimistic attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humour, accept that change is a part of life, and believe in a higher power or purpose.
  • Your ability to deal with your emotions. You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or afraid. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity.
  • Your knowledge and preparation – The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

??Reflection Exercise: Things to ask yourself

Am I in control of stress or is stress controlling me?

  • When I feel agitated, do I know how to quickly calm and soothe myself?
  • Can I easily let go of my anger?
  • Can I turn to others at work to help me calm down and feel better?
  • When I come home at night, do I walk in the door feeling alert and relaxed?
  • Am I seldom distracted or moody?
  • Am I able to recognize upsets that others seem to be experiencing?
  • Do I easily turn to friends or family members for a calming influence?
  • When my energy is low, do I know how to boost it?

Source: The Language of Emotional Intelligence by Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.


What are the causes of stress?

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 you or forces you to adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
What causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that’s stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.

Common “External” causes of stress

  • Major life changes
  • Work
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial problem
  • Being too busy
  • Children and family

Life events- the more changes in life, the more prone most of us become to stress. Good events (birth of a baby, getting job, moving to a nicer area) as well as bad events (death of a parent, losing a job, being mugged) can trigger stress. This is due to having to adjust to change. If you have to cope with too much change, stress can result.

Hassles- Many people with stress have a lot of Hassles in their life. A hassle is a problem that is there day after day. It may be quiet small. It may be hard to do much about it. It gnaws away at you. It could be a problem at work, in the home, with the people next door, with debt, coping with illness. These hassles slowly wear you down and stress slowly builds.

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
  • Lack of assertiveness

So, the simple answer is practically anything! It depends on the individual.

For Example: Weddings are usually joyous occasions. For some people, however, they bring a great deal of pressure. All the preparations that have to be made can so weigh them down that they are stressed until the whole thing is over. Others breeze through such preparations and even get a “buzz” out of doing them well. At the opposite end of the scale, funerals are normally sad and traumatic occasions, but with a little help from our friends most of us manage to cope. Unfortunately, some do not.


What’s Stressful For You?

What’s stressful for you may be quite different from what’s stressful to your best friend, your spouse, or the person next door. For example:

  • Some people enjoy speaking in public; others are terrified.
  • Some people are more productive under deadline pressure; others are miserably tense.
  • Some people are eager to help family and friends through difficult times; others find it very stressful.
  • Some people feel comfortable complaining about bad service in a restaurant; others find it so difficult to complain that they prefer to suffer in silence.
  • Some people may feel that changes at work represent a welcome opportunity; others worry about whether they’ll be able to cope.



Signs and symptoms of stress overload

Each of us experience stress in different ways and we hold stress, tension in different parts of our body. Each individual has own stress sensitive area. When trying to manage stress it is important to recognise our warning signs.

These signs can be divided up into the following categories; Physical, Emotional and How We Act. Take a look at the following list of symptoms and see if you can identify any of your warning signs.

Physical Symptoms- how stress effects the body

  • Difficulty sleeping, waking up throughout the night, grinding teeth when asleep and having nightmares.
  • Persistent tension headaches, tension in shoulders, neck, back
  • Abdominal symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, stomach pains and cramps.
  • Symptoms of anxiety such as sweating, palpitations, shortness of breath and deep sighing.
  • Bouts of viral and bacterial illnesses
  • Loss of libido
  • Obesity or weight loss
  • Restlessness

Emotional Symptoms- how stress effects our feelings and thoughts

  • Chronic fatigue or exhaustion, often mistaken for physical fatigue
  • Frustration, anger and intolerance
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and helplessness
  • Depression and negative and suicidal thoughts
  • Fixed ways of thinking, which can create problems at home and at work
  • Poor decision making
  • Addiction
  • Impaired short term memory

These coping strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more damage in the long run:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much
  • Overeating or under eating
  • Zoning out for hours in front of the TV or computer
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
  • Using pills or drugs to relax
  • Sleeping too much
  • Procrastinating
  • Filling up every minute of the day to avoid facing problems
  • Taking out your stress on others (lashing out, angry outbursts, physical violence)

I have given you just some of the main changes that take place in the body- there are many others.

Ref: Flagging Stress: Toxic Stress and how to avoid it by Dr Harry Barry


Dealing with Stress and its Symptoms

Identify the sources of stress in your life

First step in managing our stress is to identify the sources of stress in your life. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Your true sources of stress aren’t always obvious, and it’s all too easy to overlook your own stress-inducing thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Sure, you may know that you’re constantly worried about work deadlines. But maybe it’s your procrastination, rather than the actual job demands, that leads to deadline stress.

Reflection Exercise: To identify your true sources of stress, look closely at your habits, attitude, and excuses:

  • Do you explain away stress as temporary (“I just have a million things going on right now”) even though you can’t remember the last time you took a breather?
  • Do you define stress as an integral part of your work or home life (“Things are always crazy around here”) or as a part of your personality (“I have a lot of nervous energy, that’s all”).
  • Do you blame your stress on other people or outside events, or view it as entirely normal and unexceptional?

Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.

If your methods of coping with stress are not contributing to your greater emotional and physical health, it’s time to find healthier ones. There are many healthy ways to manage and cope with stress, but they all require change. You can either change the situation or change your reaction. When deciding which option to choose, it’s helpful to think of the four As: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.


Stress management Step 1: There are some stresses that we can avoid

Not all stress can be avoided, and it’s not healthy to avoid a situation that needs to be addressed. You may be surprised, however, by the number of stressors in your life that you can eliminate.

  • Learn how to say “no” – Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, refuse to accept added responsibilities when you’re close to reaching them. Taking on more than you can handle is a recipe for stress. This can be hard at first but the more you say it the easier it gets.
  • Avoid people who stress you out – If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship entirely. This goes for family members (mothers, fathers, aunts, siblings etc) you may love them but they stress you out. Limited your time with them is not a selfish thing, it is an essential thing.
  • Take control of your environment – If the evening news makes you anxious, turn the TV off. If traffic’s got you tense, take a longer but less-travelled route. TIP: If going to do your shopping is an unpleasant and stressful task, do your grocery shopping online.
  • Avoid hot-button topics – If you get upset over religion or politics, cross them off your conversation list. TIP: If you repeatedly argue about the same subject with the same people, stop bringing it up or excuse yourself when it’s the topic of discussion.
  • Pare down your to-do list – Take a look at your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you have got too much on your plate, distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts.” Drop tasks that are not truly necessary to the bottom of the list or eliminate them entirely. TIP: stop filling your day with to many tasks for instance, going to the bank, then post office, nip into town, arrange to meet Mary for a cuppa then have dinner ready and the house clean. Impossible to physically completed and this way of operating piles the pressure on in turn creating stress.

Stress management step 2: Some stressful situation can be altered

If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what you can do to change things so the problem does not present itself in the future. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.

  • Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the situation will likely remain the same.
  • Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behaviour, be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.
  • Be more assertive. Don’t take a back seat in your own life. Deal with problems head on, doing your best to anticipate and prevent them. If you’ve got an exam to study for and your chatty room mate just got home, say up front that you only have five minutes to talk.
  • Manage your time better. Poor time management can cause a lot of stress. When you’re stretched too thin and running behind, it’s hard to stay calm and focused. But if you plan ahead and make sure you don’t overextend yourself, you can alter the amount of stress you’re under.

Stress management step 3: Adapt to the stressor

If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. This might sound drastic but some stressors we can’t run away from or even avoid, its the reality. For instance ongoing financial issues: if you cant escape, avoid the stressful situation like dealing with the banks over debts. You can adapt to it by regaining your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.

  • Reframing problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favourite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.
  • Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
  • Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”
  • Focus on the positive. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy can help you keep things in perspective.

Adjusting Your Attitude 

How you think can have a profound effect on your emotional and physical well-being. Each time you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were in the throes of a tension-filled situation. If you see good things about yourself, you are more likely to feel good; the reverse is also true. Eliminate words such as “always,” “never,” “should,” and “must.” These are telltale marks of self-defeating thoughts.

Tell yourself “I did my best” rather than “I should have done better”.

Stress management step 4: Accept the things you can’t change

Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stressors such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than railing against a situation you can’t change.

  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control— particularly the behaviour of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.
  • Look for the upside. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
  • Share your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend or make an appointment with a therapist. Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation.
  • Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.

Stress management step 5: Make time for fun and relaxation

Beyond a take-charge approach and a positive attitude, you can reduce stress in your life by nurturing yourself. If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors when they inevitably come.

Some examples of healthy ways to relax and recharge

  • Go for a walk.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Call a good friend.
  • Sweat out tension with a good workout.
  • Write in your journal.
  • Take a long bath.
  • Light scented candles
  • Savor a warm cup of coffee or tea.
  • Play with a pet.
  • Work in your garden.
  • Get a massage.
  • Curl up with a good book.
  • Listen to music.
  • Watch a comedy

Don’t get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget to take care of your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury.

  • Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.
  • Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.
  • Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.
  • Keep your sense of humour. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

Learn the relaxation response

You can control your stress levels with relaxation techniques that evoke the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response. Regularly practising these techniques will build your physical and emotional resilience, heal your body, and boost your overall feelings of joy and equanimity.

Help your body to relax

As you go through the day check your body from time to time. Ask yourself:

Are you holding your muscles tight?

Is your body hunched over the computer?

Are you walking around with your shoulders raised around your ears?

Are you ignoring the fact that you’re thirsty or hungry?

Are you bending or lifting in ways that hurt your body?

Breathing Techniques

Here is a simple exercise. Place your left hand flat on your chest and your right hand flat on your stomach. Now take a deep breath and hold it for three seconds. Then let it out.

Easy wasn’t it? Let’s repeat the exercise, but this time observe what happens. Does your chest expand and your left hand rise with it? Or does your stomach expand into a rounded belly and your right hand move with it?

It is worth practising abdominal breathing and getting into the habit of using it from time to time during the day. Repeat the whole exercise for a few minutes. You’ll be surprised at how calm and relaxed you’ll become in a short time.

Ref: David M, Eshelman et al (2008). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook

Stress management step 6: Adopt a healthy lifestyle

You can increase your resistance to stress by strengthening your physical health.

  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week. Nothing beats aerobic exercise for releasing pent-up stress and tension.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.
  • Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary “highs” caffeine and sugar provide often end in with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with a clear mind.
  • Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.

Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits all” solution to managing it. No single method works for everyone or in every situation, so experiment with different techniques and strategies. Focus on what makes you feel calm and in control.

References and Links by Melinda Smith, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: June 2013.

Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory test cited online:

The Language of Emotional Intelligence: The Five Essential Tools for Building Powerful and Effective Relationships by Jeanne Segal, Ph.D (Book)

Related site Understanding Emotional Intelligence:

Flagging Stress: Toxic Stress and how to avoid it by Dr Harry Barry (Book)

Davis M, Eshelman E and Mc Kay M (2008). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (6th ed)