Daily hassles, poor sleep, loud noise, too much to do, missed meals, missed appointments, overdue bills, unkind words
from a friend or co-worker, car troubles, disease or injury, getting
fired; death of a friend, acquaintance, or pet are all examples of loses we
experience as a normal part of life. Stress is our effort to
resist the loss and restore equilibrium.
- Resisting loss.
- A reaction to feeling helpless to avoid loss.
- A physical and mental response to a challenging or threatening
- The energy and personal resources required to cope.
- The resources required to restore equilibrium.
- The cost of coping.
- The resources required to counteract a stressor.
Stress is the expenditure of resources required to offset or counteract—that
is to cope with—a stressor and restore equilibrium.
Stress is the organism's (person's) internal response to a stressor. A stressor is
a stimulus or situation that upsets the equilibrium or normal quiescent state of an
organism (person). Stress expends resources to restore an equilibrium that has
been upset by the stressor. This is called coping. Burnout is an
exhaustion of resources as a result of
chronic stress. Trauma is an overwhelming stress that exceeds our ability to
cope. We worry from the time we notice a stressor until we begin to cope with
These terms can be understood by thinking about water flooding into a
basement. The flow of water into the basement is a stressor—it upsets the
original equilibrium condition of a dry basement. An initial
appraisal determines that the water has to be
removed from the basement. Pumping water out is the
coping strategy chosen to restore the equilibrium. The
resources required to run the pump, e.g. electric power, is the stress on the
system that is required to respond to and counteract the stressor. Burnout could
occur if resources to run the pump become exhausted. This could happen, for
example if the batteries in the pump run dead, or the pump motor burns out.
Trauma could occur, overwhelming the pump's capacity, if a large surge of water
quickly entered the basement. As the basement begins to dry out, there is an
opportunity to reappraise the situation. This reappraisal recognizes that some coping strategies are better than others
because they require fewer resources to maintain. For
example, it may require fewer resources to stop the flow of water into the
basement, perhaps by patching the wall, than to constantly pump the water out.
Stopping the flow of water reduces the stress required to maintain a dry
basement. The reassessment was successful in reducing the on-going stress level.
Stress allows us to meet and overcome challenges and problems. Stress is
essential to counteracting many inevitable stressors.
Stress and Emotions
Stress and emotions often occur simultaneously. They both result from
appraisals of the stressor. The personal
meaning of the stressor event determines which
particular emotion results. The intensity of the emotion depends
on the importance of the event. The stress level depends on the impact of the
stressor. This determines the particular resources required to overcome or
counteract the stressor for a the chosen coping strategy.
Stressors are everywhere. The Social Readjustment Rating
Scale(SRRS) provides a list of major life events that are common stressors and
provides a relative intensity rating
Other important stressors, not listed on the SRRS, include: death of a child,
the deterioration of old-age, immigration, war, racism, natural disasters, poverty,
isolation, anarchy, terrorism, many conditions that prevent
needs from being met such as hunger, thrust, isolation, boredom, alienation,
loud noise, chaos, noxious agents, oppression,
trespass, and many others.
In addition to the major life events listed in the Social Readjustment Rating
Scale, daily hassles are also significant stressors. These include time
pressure, security threats, financial difficulties, household problems and
frustrations, school or job-related problems, neighborhood annoyances, and
health problems. Lost keys, computer crashes, traffic jams, missed appointments,
waiting in lines, rude people, spilled drinks, malfunctioning equipment, and
other hassles often fill our days.
In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned to roll a large rock up a hill
The rock was a relentless stressor balanced by the stress of his efforts to overcome
hassle. He had to expend unending resources to keep rolling it upwards. He
suffered the chronic stress of his endless struggle. We have the capacity to
solve life's daily problems and cope with ever-present
Stressors are additive. A stress response is required to counteract each
stressor. These stress responses all draw on a common pool of resources; our
physiology and attention. That
resource pool is only partially renewable. Therefore as stressors accumulate,
stress accumulates and coping resources are eventually exhausted. At that point
we are “at the end of our rope” and can no longer cope.
Organisms seek to maintain a stable internal
using a dynamic process called homeostasis. Homeostasis regulates body
temperature, heart rate, blood sugar levels, blood chemistry, and many other
microscopic and macroscopic internal body conditions essential for our on-going
survival. Homeostatic regulation allows an organism to function effectively in a
broad range of environmental conditions. Stressors challenge homeostasis because
they upset equilibrium. Stress is the body's effort required to restore
equilibrium through homeostasis.
Stress takes its toll on our bodies and minds. Our bodies and minds provide
the resources of stress; the resources required to restore equilibrium.
General Adaptation Syndrome
Researcher Hans Selye discovered that organisms respond to serious, chronic stressors in a similar general way.
He named that response the general adaptation syndrome. It describes a
prolonged compensation phase of homeostasis that is the general response of an
organism to the disequilibrium caused by a stressor. Organisms first recognize the stressor,
become aroused, and then marshal resources to resist it. They resist and successfully
counteract the stressor as long as resources remain available. If the
stressor persists long enough, they will eventually exhaust their limited supply
of coping resources. They are then overcome by the stressor. These three
are described in more detail in in this table:
Stage 1: Alarm
Stage 2: Resistance
Stage 3: Exhaustion
|General arousal caused by:
• Increase of adrenal hormones.
• reaction of sympathetic nervous system
If the stressor remains, the organism moves to Stage 2.
|Arousal subsides because of:
• decrease in adrenal output
• counter reaction of the parasympathetic nervous system.
In this stage resources are continuously expended to counteract the stressor.
If the stressor remains, the organism eventually moves to Stage 3.
|General arousal of stage 1 reappears.
A powerful parasympathetic response opposes arousal.
If the stressor is not removed in time the organism exhausts and
Loss, Threat, and Challenge
We readily recognize many different types of emotions. Are there different
types of stress? In 1974 researcher Hans Selye proposed distinguishing
between good stress and bad stress. He used the word distress to describe the
physiological reaction to adverse stressors such as disease or injury. He coined the word
eustress to describe the reaction to positive events such as the birth
of a child or going on vacation. Unfortunately, subsequent research has not
clarified this distinction. Richard Lazarus draws a distinction between three
types of stress resulting from these three categories of stressors:
- Harm / Loss—Damage or loss that has already taken place. A loss in the
- Threat—Harm or loss that has not yet occurred. A potential future loss.
- Challenge—The persistence and self-confidence to overcome obstacles and
achieve some future benefit.
Some conditions, such as poverty, chronic incurable disease, or living in high
crime neighborhoods, are ever-present stressors. The result is chronic stress.
Depending on individual differences and the resources available for coping with
such chronic conditions, some people are able to manage well and take it all in
stride while others suffer significant adverse effects.
There are several techniques that may help reduce stress. Many of them work
by reducing the activation residual from the GAS alarm stage.
Trauma describes a level of stress that exceeds our ability to cope. Trauma
is overwhelming, and often challenges or shatters our core beliefs or
values. Trauma victims
may become helpless, feel they have lost control over
their lives, and may begin to believe they are unworthy.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety
disorder that can develop after exposure to an extreme stressor such as a
terrifying ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was
When people cannot adequately cope with a catastrophic event they
are in crisis. People often require some reorganization of their
personality structure to resume normal life after suffering a crisis.
- “Is everything as urgent as your stress would imply?” ~ Carrie Latet
- “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” ~
- “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi
- “When we are in a good mood, stress is transformed
into interest.” ~ Todd Kashdan
Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis,
by Richard S. Lazarus
Psychology: Core Concepts, by Phillip G. Zimbardo, Ann L. Weber, Robert
The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions,
by Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.
The Stress of Life,
by Hans Selye
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers,
by Robert Sapolsky