Stress FAQ

 

What is stress?

Stress is a term we use every day, but defining it can be difficult. Generally, stress is understood to be the body’s response to a challenging situation.

There are many factors that can cause stress, usually brought about by a change or the expectation of change in circumstances, and this change can be either positive or negative, or both.

 

What causes stress?

Negative stress, which is oftentimes what is referred to as simply ‘stress’ occurs when the pressures that accompany the change in our lives are perceived as too overwhelming to cope with effectively.

This response translates into a cascade of physiological and psychological reactions, often described as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction – a hard-wired response to threats in our environment.

Whenever we encounter a threat, be it real or perceived, the body immediately takes over and triggers a set of reactions that are not under the immediate control of our thoughts.

Stressful situations can be either acute or chronic, and can vary in intensity. Acute stressors  include major life events, as well as daily hassles such as arguing with parents or getting a bad grade in school.

More severe acute stressors that have been discussed in the scientific literature more extensively include include the loss of a parent, parental separation or divorce, a move to a  new home or area, a serious accident or injury, or the illness of a parent or sibling.

On the other hand, chronic stressors include deprivation, abuse or neglect, discrimination and bullying, homelessness, exposure to aggression and violence, and conditions that can create a certain handicap (Sinha & Watson, 2007).

 

What are the signs of stress?

The stress response allows humans and other animals to run from a dangerous situation or fight off a threat. Our heard rate increases, and so does our blood pressure, which helps more oxygen to and blood sugar to be transported to the brain and to important muscles in the body.

Sweating also increases, so that these muscles can maintain adequate temperatures and function at the best level.

Further, blood is diverted away from less important areas for survival and toward the core, so that in the case of an attack, blood loss is reduced and we have more chances of survival in case of an injury.

Cognitively, the stress hormones focus our full attention on anything that signals a threat, and away from less threat-relevant stimuli.

Breathing accelerates so that more oxygen can be used to convert to enegery. The immune system is also activated, so that any wounds can be taken care of immediately. Our sense of pain is also diminished so that we can continue to fight and survive in case of an attack.

While threat as extreme as the ones the body prepares us for are rare in the modern world, the threat response continues to have a highly adaptive role for survival.

It continues is triggered by any perceived threats, be these actual physical threats or more social threats, or simply worries about our job security or our health.

 

What is job stress?

Job stress is one of the major sources of stress among adults, and it has become increasingly problematic over the past few decades. Job stress often manifests as the perception of having little control in the face of excessive demands, and this is associated with increased risk for having a heart attack, developing hypertension, obesity and psychological problems.

Importantly, it is not the nature of the job necessarily that triggers stress, but rather the perceived control-to-demands ratio. In addition, this balance can be further destabilized when economic conditions are harsh.

For example, when an individual fears that he will lose his job if he doesn’t fulfill all job demands, and that he has little control over whether or not he can keep his job regardless of how hard he works, the threat may be perceived as very intense and the stress response can be equally intense as a consequence.

Why is stress a problem?

While stress is a natural and useful reaction to a threat, being chronically in a state of preparedness to fight or flee from threats can become a problem to one’s health. For individuals who experience prolonged periods of stress, be this at work or when caring for an ill family member for example, chronic stress can lead to a phenomenon called ‘burnout.’

Scientists first identified burnout in relation to work stress, and it is thought to develop gradually in response to chronic stressors at work. Early warning signs are often missed or dismissed as insignificant until it is too late and the affected individual has to seek professional help (Peterson, Bergström, Samuelsson, Åsberg, & Nygren, 2008).

 

Is there a link between stress and illness?

Behavioral science and medical research have both highlighted the fact that stress and illness are related, albeit in complex ways that are not yet fully understood (Tosevski & Milovancevic, 2006). Stress and coping have been shown to be related to almost 50% of psychological symptoms, with coping responses being key to resilience to stressful life situations, but also having a sense of control over one’s challenges and demands, having a stable sense of self-esteem, and having a strong social support network (Sinha & Watson, 2007).

 

How does stress affect children and teens?

Stress is not a phenomenon restricted solely to adults. Children and adolescents who are exposed to high levels of acute and/or chronic stress can, just like adults, experience psychological and behavioral problems that can include depression, anxiety, self-injury and suicide attempts, as well as antisocial behavior problems and more general health problems such as a weakened immune response.

However, unlike in adults, excessive stress can affect developmental processes and may predispose children and adolescents to cognitive, behavioral and psychological problems in adulthood (Sinha & Watson, 2007).

Acute stressors in childhood and adolescence, such as school-related problems and interpersonal conflicts with family or peers are often experienced more intensely.

This is because adolescents neural development does not follow a linear trajectory. Instead, their emotional centers tend to develop much earlier than their abilities to reason and adequately cope with stressful situations, leading to very intense emotional experiences that are difficult to control or comprehend by adults (Steinberg, 2010).

 

Peterson, U., Bergström, G., Samuelsson, M., Åsberg, M., & Nygren, Å. (2008). Reflecting peer-support groups in the prevention of stress and burnout: randomized controlled trial. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 63(5), 506–516. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2008.04743.x
Sinha, B. K., & Watson, D. C. (2007). Stress, coping and psychological illness: A cross-cultural study. International Journal of Stress Management, 14(4), 386–397. doi:10.1037/1072-5245.14.4.386
Steinberg, L. (2010). A dual systems model of adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Psychobiology, n/a–n/a. doi:10.1002/dev.20445
Tosevski, D. L., & Milovancevic, M. P. (2006). Stressful life events and physical health: Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 19(2), 184–189. doi:10.1097/01.yco.0000214346.44625.57

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