Coping with Stress

Stress is a term used to describe a pattern of physiological responses which are directed to specific events in our lives. It is also a term that has fallen into fashion in recent years, particularly when referring stress to the context of work, productivity and health.

Common perception affirms stress as an undesirable and unhealthy issue. However, this affirmation is quite imprecise. In fact, stress is a major evolutionary advantage of the human body, enabling individuals to quickly react to endangering situations – and most likely improve the ability to evaluate, assess and cope with the ‘danger’.

Primarily, the Hypothalamus (region of the brain responsible for controlling the Autonomic Nervous System) identifies a stressor (which could be any event – such as a noise) and automatically prepares the body to react to that stressor. This is done through sending signals to both the ANS and the Pituitary Gland (limbic system) – which in turn, activate a ‘response mechanism’ by stimulating body organs to change their regular activity. This response mechanism is identified by: increase of blood pressure, heart rate, sugar levels and re-direction of blood flow to major organs. The body also improves respiration by dilating air passages, stopping digestion in order to direct focus (energy) to ‘relevant’ parts of the body and increasingly produces adrenaline (epinephrine).

All this process occurs in a few seconds – and it was particularly ‘designed’ to increase survival chances either by challenging the situation, or by escaping from it. All these biological features are commonly expressed (or perceived) as emotions. For instance, you may experience fear or excitement in a ‘biologically endangering’ situation. You may also experience the stress positively or negatively.

In positive instances, we comply with our biological reactions, using increased awareness and body conditions to our own advantage. In negative instances, stress is commonly associated with anxiety – and the outcome is having difficulty in dealing with the situation. A very common example is a student who, even though had intensively studied for an examination, cannot perform during the exam.

The role of perception is extremely important in determining the health issues associated with the incidence of stress. Primarily, although stress is a natural and desired response to particular situations – it is also supposed to be temporary. The human body is not capable of sustaining a stressful environment for a long time without damaging cells, organs and other components of the system. Therefore, recurring stressful situations are an actual threat to our body. Recurring stress can cause brain cells to be damaged or destroyed, and induce problems related to blood pressure and heart rates. Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) was identified as one of the major causes of stress-related death.

The concept of cognitive appraisal comprises the two steps an individual usually undertakes when faced with a stressful situation: first, an evaluation of the threat and secondly, an assessment of the resources available to deal with that threat. The worse a threat is perceived, and the lowest the available resources are accounted for – the more an individual will be distressed and emotionally affected. It is a logical human response: the more you can control your environment, the more confident you’ll feel to face any challenges.

For this reason, equal stimuli may have disparate responses by two different people. In this content, confidence and personal balance plays a big role in defining the emotional effect a stressful moment will cause. One of the strategies for ‘combating’ stress refers to the ability of moulding our emotional responses in order to better adapt to stressing situations: “When an animal can learn a coping response that allows it to avoid contact with an aversive stimulus, its emotional response will disappear” (Carlson & Buskist, 1997). By controlling our perception of an event, we are able to shorten stressful periods, and furthermore, reduce psychological harm from stressful events.

Stress Management in Counselling

Counsellors are constantly dealing with stress from both personal and professional perspectives. The manner in which counsellors deal with stress commonly defines how they’ll approach a client’s stress-related situation. When considering stress and its effects, it is important that we think in terms of ‘association or relationship’ between the cause[s] and the effect[s] of the stress.

To think of either of these (that is the cause or the effect) in isolation will not give appropriate answers, as it is the overall picture – the relationship between the cause and the effect – that we are interested in. This relationship between the cause and the effect is known as the stimulus and response association.

Self Exercise

Take a little time and write down some words or phrases which you would use to describe the feelings or symptoms of what you would describe as ‘stress’. Consider the causes and effects of these feeling and symptoms that signify stress to you.

Stress and Performance Outcomes

Stress, with its associated physiological, mental and emotional states and changes, is an interesting and complex issue. There are times when stress makes us feel bad and we perform unsatisfactorily, and there are times when the right degree of stress can be good for us as it sharpens our focus (as mentioned in the previous article). The relationship between stress and performance is such that:

  • The right amount of stress can be performance enhancing as it facilitates the availability and release of motivational energy when and where required.
  • Too little stress ‘does not get the blood flowing’ and reduces the availability of motivational energy.
  • Chronic stress such as boredom can produce an entropic effect which draws upon and reduces the store and availability of psychoemotional energy.
  • Shorter term stress can temporarily reduce access to and the flow of motivational energy, while acute stress can virtually short circuit the mental schema and effectively block access to motivational energy, or alternatively, impel us to an abnormally high level of activity, albeit uncontrolled.

Given the relationship between stress and emotional performance, it is noted that constant boredom and being unable to find outlets for our mental and creative energy can also be another common cause of stress. The effects of boredom leave us feeling similar to the way we do when experiencing other forms of chronic stress. Boredom also adversely affects performance and general wellbeing.

Life situations where there is too little stress are very common, indeed they may be more common than situations of overstress. Almost all environments, including those of marriage and the workplace, can eventually lead to diminished opportunity for creative expression and boredom if something active is not done to counter this natural entropic process.