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What Is Stress

Stress. We've all heard the expression, but no one really knows what they are talking about. Stress is an individual's response to changes within their life. Often mislabelled, people tend to think only about the negative sides of stress, ignoring the fact that stress is an important part of everyday life. Without stress one would have very little motivation, and will become bored with life, and feel the need to do something -- anything. This is stressful, and during this "rust out" period one will suffer the same symptoms that someone under severe stress does. The only thing to do is to recognize how much stress you experience, and make it work to your advantage.


Many people thrive under stress. The optimal stress point is where you are stimulated into a state of high productivity. If there is less stress, ones performance may suffer, due to a lack of initiative; however, if there is too much pressure one may react badly and simply break down. This burnout will result in a drastic decrease in productivity.

The optimum stress level will be different for each individual, because something that causes a great deal of negative stress to one person could very well cause another person to become exhilerated. A common example of this is being the centre of attention.

Short term stress is caused by a stressor that needs to be dealt with immediately. Often negative emotions concerning the situation arise once the stressor is recognized, adding to the stress level. During a period of short term stress, the body will become more alert, but only in relation to the stressor. This can either help or cause harm to the task that was being performed before the stress began, depending on what the cause of the stress is. For example, if you were writing an important paper and it was causing you stress, then your performance will become better. If however the paper is not too important to you and the cause of stress is from a burglar, then performance on the paper will suffer.

Short term stress works in such a way that once the stressful situation begins, the body immediately prepares to deal with it, and your stress levels shoot up. The body's stress level plateaus while it deals with the stress. Short term stress is very demanding for the body, and it takes a lot out of it, especially if the situation persists for a number of hours. After the stress has been dealt with, the body has to take some time to recuperate and repair any damage that has been inflicted.

Long term stress, on the other hand is an entirely different story. It is caused when many little stressors accumulate over a long period of time. These stressors are usually due to everyday life, and are not so dire that they cannot be lived with. Because of this, the body often does not deal with them immediately. With each new stressor the body can adapt to the higher level of stress, but the individual cannot, and feels more stressed. The individual's stress is due to the fact that there is usually no time to stop, relax and recuperate and thus lower the stress levels, and because these stressors are ones beyond personal control.

Eventually, neither the body nor the individual is able to deal with the accumulated stressors, and burnout occurs. This is when the body cannot adapt to the stress level any longer and simply gives up. At this point the person, both physically and psychologically, is susceptible to illness.

The "fight or flight" response is the body's reaction to short term stress. The result of it is that the body is prepared physically to stay and fight the cause of stress, or to get away from the whole situation as fast as it can. It is not possible to control the response in any way, because it is wired into our brain and has been since the beginning of time. It is not unique to humans, either. Animals find themselves in stressful situations the same way humans do, and they react with the same "fight or flight" response. It was originally used as a life saving device, because then most stressors were major and life threatening. Even though now only few of are stressors are life threatening, the body's response has not changed at all, and still treats what the mind knows to be only a minor hassle to be life threatening.

This is how the reaction works: The brain recognizes a stressor, and sends a message to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus does two jobs. One is that it makes a hormone, CRF, and it sends impulses to the adrenal glands (these are located on top of the kidney) by means of the spinal cord. The adrenal glands make the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and neurochemicals. These in turn ready the body by speeding up the heart rate and breathing, increasing alertness and tensing muscles. The second "job" of the hypothalamus is to trigger the pituitary gland to produce yet another hormone, ACTH. ATCH sents more impulses to the adrenal glands which in turn release cortisol to speed up the body's metabolism. All of these changes feed back to the pituitary gland to regulate the reaction. These reactions are all helpful for coping with the stressor; however, there are some other side effects that come along with the reaction. They do not help and can linger after the situation has been resolved.


If the stressor persists, then the body will lessen the "fight or flight" reaction and calm down a little, but still stay alert in case it is needed. This stage can be compared to a screen saver on a computer. After the situation is completely over, the body is supposed to relax and take time to recover while the reaction sysmptoms go away. New research has shown that this is not always the case. If the body experiences short term stress very often, then it can become sensitized to the "fight or flight" reaction. The result of this is that even a small stressor will immediately set off the "fight or flight" response, and thus make the person unable to deal with normal, everyday stress for the rest of their life. This sensitization has been shown to occur more often during childhood. Prolonged "fight or flight" responses can also make the adrenal glands to give off too much or not enough of the needed hormones. This can eventually cause obesity, osteoporosis, heart disease or baldness.

Table of Contents

The Symptoms of Stress
Stress Quiz
Stress Management
Our Fictional Family
Stress and Adolescents
Stress in the Workplace
Stress and the Future
Our Resource List

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