Concepts Relating to Stress





Handling Stressors

Ways to Reduce Stress


Course Exam


Stress is a natural reaction of the body which was designed as a defense mechanism to protect the individual person.  Physiologically, when the body is under stress conditions, from either physical or emotional causes, impulses from the sympathetic system increase to most visceral effectors and stimulate them to respond in the most effective way to enable the body to function at its maximum potential to put forth as much energy as the body can physically produce.

This prepares us for the classic “flight or fight” which is sometimes necessary for our survival.  The stimulus which signals the brain may be a stimulus which endangers, frightens, irritates, excites or confuses the individual.  This mechanism enables individuals to handle unfamiliar or threatening situations.  One of the important factors in managing stress is realizing that many of the sympathetic activities are going to be expressed through the visceral effectors if there is no outward expression of the emotions through somatic effectors such as physical activity.  For example, when an individual feels angry and goes for a walk to work it off and feels calmed down after the walk, the emotion of anger has been expressed through the somatic effectors (the contractions of the skeletal muscles during the walking).  If, however, the anger was not worked off through a physical activity, then that emotion was expressed through visceral effectors and the individual’s blood pressure increased, the
pulse rate increased and the mouth felt dry because the salivary glands were producing less saliva. While sympathetic impulses are usually the dominating forces during stress and control the visceral factors, this is not always true.  Parasympathetic impulses sometimes become excessive and control the visceral effectors.  An example of this effect would be in the person who had excessive stimulation of the smooth muscle of the stomach which could lead to the development of peptic ulcers.





increased heart rate

to pump blood faster

high blood pressure

faster breathing

to provide more oxygen

chest pains from tired diaphragm muscles

stopped or arrested digestion

to divert blood to large muscles


blood diverted from head, hands & feet

to send blood to large muscles

cold hands and feet               migraine headaches                                 

increased coagulation of the blood

to minimize blood loss should injury occur

increased chance of blood clotting;  stroke

release of extra sugars into the blood stream and insulin to break those sugars down

to increase energy


stress messages sent to muscles

to prepare muscles for action

muscle fatigue

The word stress has changed in its use over the years and is now more commonly used to refer to the effect the mind exerts on the body, particularly when the combined stressors of life become greater than a person’s ability to handle them.  Stress is often thought of as the rate of all the wear and tear caused by life.  It is the response of the mind (emotions and intellect), body and behavior to stressors.  Stress is a necessary part of existence.  If stress did not occur, many of the accomplishments of everyday life would not occur and many of our pleasures in life would be diminished.  Most individuals are aware when they are functioning in their usual comfort zone for stress factors.  Individuals operating in their comfort zone feel energized, find work stimulating and enjoyable, make decisions quickly and easily, remain calm under pressure, enjoy leisure time and have the ability to relax.  Individuals are less aware when they begin to function at stress levels above or below their comfort zone.  There is no set formula for determining an individual’s comfort zone, especially since the comfort zone changes from time to time.  Whenever an individual feels that he/she is functioning outside his/her comfort zone, that individual should step back and look at the situation.

Consideration needs to be given as to whether he/she has too little or too much stress.  Then take whatever action is necessary to increase or decrease the amount of stress being experienced so that return to the comfort zone can be achieved for optimal functioning.  This will assure functioning to the best of the individual’s ability.


  1. Personal relationships
  2. Professional relationships
  3. Financial concerns
  4. Time pressures
  5. Lack of job security
  6. Change
  7. The need for approval
  8. Family pressures
  9. Fast-pace lifestyle
  10. Drive to overachieve
  11. Values conflicts

Symptoms of stress overload and underload differ in their causes, but the symptoms can be quite similar.  Symptoms also differ in intensity and from individual to individual.  Most people who have difficulty coping with stress do not tune into their bodies and recognize that their body is trying to tell them that it is stressed.  Learn to listen to your body.  Watch for any of the following signs of stress.


  1. Increase in physical problems and illnesses
  2. Increase in problems with relationships
  3. Increase in negative thoughts and feelings
  4. Significant increase in bad habits
  5. Exhaustion and fatigue
  6. Insomnia
  7. Denial that anything is wrong
  8. Mistakes
  9. Accidents
  10. Inability to concentrate/remember

What does one do if he/she recognizes that he/she has one or more of these symptoms?  Accept it as a warning signal and evaluate to determine the cause of the stress.  The chart in the previous section indicates the possible long term consequences of a stressful lifestyle.  The individual then needs to decide whether or not to make some lifestyle changes.

Individuals who are experiencing symptoms of a stressful lifestyle can actively make the decision to change that lifestyle.  In the process of changing their lifestyle, they will also need to re-examine their attitudes and beliefs about themselves.  They will need to look carefully at what makes them happy and unhappy; satisfied and dissatisfied.  The following is a list of typical beliefs which seem to be consistent with the stress prone personality:

  1. I am a victim.  All of my problems are caused by someone else.
  2. It is awful when things do not go the way I want them to go.
  3. If someone disagrees with me, it means he/she does not like me.
  4. It is terrible to be average.
  5. My value as a person depends upon what others think of me.
  6. I have to always do the best I can do.
  7. If I make a mistake, that means I am stupid, careless and worthless.
  8. People should always be blamed or punished for their mistakes, failures and weakness.
  9. I have to be able to know, understand and foresee everything.
  10. If I am not perfect at something, them I am no good.
  11. In order to be happy, I have to be successful in everything that I do.
  12. If I am not the best at something, then I am no good.
  13. I always have to be courteous, unselfish and generous.
  14. If my spouse (friend, parent, child, etc.) doesn’t love me, I am worthless.
  15. If something can be dangerous I must worry about it actually happening.

As a means of further evaluation, contrast a high stress life style with a low stress life style as indicated on the following chart.


The individual struggles with interpersonal relationships (family, spouse, boss, co-workers, children, etc.). Asserts own rights and needs; negotiates low stress relationships of mutual respect; selects friends carefully and establishes relationships that are nourishing and healthy.
Experiences continual time stress; too much to be done in too little time. Maintains a well-balanced workload.  Allows for “breather” periods.
Worries about potentially unpleasant upcoming events. Balances threatening events with worthwhile goals and positive events to look forward to.
Has poor health habits (eating, smoking, liquor, lack of exercise, poor level of physical fitness). Maintains high level of physical fitness, eats well, uses tobacco and alcohol not at all or sparingly.
Life activities are unbalanced.  One activity dominates time (work, exercise, etc.). Life activities are balanced.  Engages in a variety of activities, which together, give satisfaction.
Finds it difficult to just “have a good time”, relax and enjoy the activities of the moment. Finds pleasure in simple activities, without having a need to justify playful behavior.
Becomes trapped in one or more continuing stressful situations. Has “escape time”, allowing for occasional detachment and relaxation.
Experiences sexual activities as unpleasant, unrewarding or socially “programmed” (by manipulation, “one-upping”). Enjoys a full sex life, with expression of sexual appetite.
Sees life as a serious, difficult situation; little sense of humor. Enjoys life on the whole; can laugh at himself, has a sense of humor.
Conforms to imprisoning, punishing social roles. Lives a relatively role-free life; is able to express natural needs, desires and feelings without apology.
Accepts stressful situations passively; suffers in silence. Acts assertively to re-engineer stressful situations, renegotiates deadlines, manages time effectively.

In addition to the individual’s lifestyle, it is becoming increasingly clear that coping styles, thoughts, feelings and day to day behavior are impacting the individual’s health, feeling of well-being and susceptibility to disease.  People usually fall into three categories as relates to their ability to handle
stress.  The first category are those who handle stress well, actually thriving on stress; those who cannot not handle stress well, cannot function under stressful situations; and those who appear to be handling stress well, but who are actually in great turmoil inside.  The individuals in the third category
are not usually aware of the tension building inside of themselves and may be on the pathway to burnout.  The difference between the pathway to peak performance and the pathway to burnout most likely relates to the way we react to stressors and the ways in which we listen to our bodies as we move through the stress.  Stress is manageable and burnout is preventable and resolvable.  The answers are in knowing oneself and in resolving to get back on balance.  Individuals need to take responsibility for their own health.  Maintaining good health includes the appropriate handling of stress factors.  As one begins to assess oneself (or assess the patient), it is helpful to identify signs of stress and to then analyze what factors led to the exhibiting or those signs.  The following exercises will lead in the direction of identifying immediate reactions to stress.  The way an individual handles his/her immediate reactions to stress directly impacts the development of chronic stress.  As the individual identifies stress factors, he/she can then make choices about the management of that stress.

Next: Behaviors