Stress - Fact about Stress

Fact about Stress

What is it

Stress is a part of life. We all experience some stress in response to pressures we may face from day to day. With too much, illness could develop. The word stress may have a double meaning as it is used to describe both the stimulus and its effect. It is more precise to talk about "stressors" and "stress responses", which can be either positive or negative, depending on their effect on well-being.

Social scientists have devised a list of life events and rated the relative stressfulness of each(1). Thus: the death of a spouse rates 100 on the scale, whereas trouble with one's employer rates 23; being fired, 47; going to jail, 63; a change in sleeping habits, 16; getting divorced, 73. Whilst many stressful events in life are not high on this scale, their repetition has a disastrous cumulative effect.

How does it occur

The most common stressor is the constant demand of varied interruptions whilst trying to carry on the usual routines of everyday life. This sounds familiar to most people.

The drain may take the form of impossibly high expectations from employers, spouses or perhaps the bank, and may be coupled with an increased feeling of loss of control over one's fate, leading to a decreased ability to cope and increased sense of being stressed.

The biggest stressors come from relationships with one's family household (parents, spouse, children), from the workplace, and from financial pressure.

Why does it occur

As the body responds to stress, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, and other body systems prepare to meet the threat. When a person does something active to cope with a threat, these systems return to normal. Running away or fighting (the so-called fight-or-flight reaction) are both successful ways of coping with many physical threats.

problems arise, however, when the body is prepared to cope with danger but cannot do so. Dealing with a difficult situation, for example, can cause the body to prepare for a fight-or-flight response, but when no action can be taken, the body's systems remain over active. Similar repeated experiences of this frustrating nature can lead to a sense of being overloaded which is commonly called "stress", but is more accurately called a "negative stress response".

Are certain people susceptible to stress

Many factors may lead to stress-related disorders. Among these is a certain type of personality: "type A", a term originally applied to people who are prone to coronary artery disease. The type-A coping style, characterised by competitive, hard-driving intensity, is common in Western 20th-century society, and mounting evidence indicates that type-A behaviour is associated with an increased incidence of several stress-related disorders.

Does stress make you ill

In a classical and important study over 30 years ago researchers(2) found that bacterial throat infection causing illness was four times as likely to occur after than before stressful events. This was confirmed in 1991(3)when a study showed that the rates of respiratory infections increased in line with increases in the degree of reported psychological stress. This experiment was performed under controlled circumstances and supports the idea that although exposure to infectious agents is necessary for illness, it is stress that in some way suppresses resistance, leaving individuals susceptible to physical illness(4).

Many other diseases such as high blood pressure, psoriasis, asthma, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome and a host of others can also be triggered and maintained by stress.

The importance of the meaning of life

If the total pressure of stressors is great enough, the essential meaning in life begins to fade. One study (5) showed that a sense of commitment and meaning was extremely important in protecting our health when we are under stress; another study(6) highlighted job satisfaction as the most important predictor for reports of low back pain; a further major report (7) showed that survival after life threatening illness can depend heavily on whether we believe in what we are doing with our lives. In addition, other research(8) has shown that when we are older, how long we are likely to live depends most importantly on how much of what we're doing seems of value and has meaning. If a person starts to feel that life loses its meaning then something is seriously wrong in his or her life. It is important that the person is helped to recognise the dangers both to themselves and their family.

What effect does stress have

The symptoms of a negative stress response have much in common with depressive illness, and indeed this itself may develop if the stressors remain unchanged. The mechanisms of coping fail, and the vital resource of hardiness is no longer enough to keep the person going. Illness develops.

Ten signs of rising stress

    1. Disturbed sleep. Finding it hard to drop off to sleep; waking early; inability to get back to sleep.
    2. Loss of pleasure in things once enjoyed.
    3. Appetite changes. Eating far too much or too little.
    4. Irritability and impatience. An increasingly short temper.
    5. Tiredness, lack of energy even after a night's rest.
    6. Inability to concentrate, meet deadlines or make decisions.
    7. Loss of libido.
    8. Increasing cynicism or loss of trust.
    9. Anxiety and panic attacks.
    10. Sense of losing control over events.

Ten ways to control stress

Reduce the stressors:

  1. Cut out unnecessary tasks. Refuse to take on unnecessary chores.
  2. Good personal time management and good communication within the family and workplace is a pre-requisite for the ability to manage home and work demands.
  3. Good communication with the family is a big help in cutting problems down to size. Share a problem and it will be halved.
  4. Retain a sense of control over our lives and don't be overcome by feelings of helplessness.
  5. Modify lifestyle: the use of alcohol, coffee, tobacco, food (especially chocolate) can lead to more problems; they give a false sense of comfort which is short-lived, and leads to increased craving for more of the same. These coping substitutes can also create new problems such as liver damage, increased anxiety, lung and heart disease and obesity, which feed on the stress and worsen the problem.
  6. Non-prescribed or recreational drugs can give rise to serious addiction problems, but with huge increases in the scale of craving and further problems. Never use mind altering drugs to cope with stress.
  7. Exercise and self-help relaxation techniques: (yoga, transcendental meditation, self-hypnosis) can reduce the sense of being stressed and improve all the symptoms of stress. There is good scientific evidence that regular practice of self-help will reduce the risk of many different illnesses and diseases.
  8. Up to date therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and psychotherapy can provide useful insights into the causes of one's stress, and equip a person to cope with the onset of stress symptoms.
  9. prescribed drugs can be helpful in the treatment of symptoms of stress, though not as a cure. They may help in controlling the very distressing effects of stress, such as phobias, panic attacks and so on.
  10. Most importantly of all, to look after our own stress effectively, we must look after ourselves first. The aim is always to find a way to regain control of our lives.

Where can I get more information

Apart from contacting your own Gp, the following organisation may be of use:

Relaxation for Living Trust

30 Victoria Avenue
Isle of Wight
pO27 6LS
Telephone: 01983 868166


  1. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia (1993-1995) Stress related disorders.
  2. MEYER, R.L et al. (1962) Streptococcal infections in families paediatrics 29 pp.539-549
  3. COHN, S. et al. (1991) psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold New England Journal of Medicine 325, pp.606-612
  4. RIDSDALE, L.(1995) Critical reading for general practice. London: W.B.Saunders.
  5. KOBASA, S.C., MADDI, S.R. and KAHN, S. (1982) Hardiness and health: a prospective study Journal of personal and Social psychology 42 pp.168-177
  6. BIGOS, S.J. et al. (1991) A prospective study of work perceptions and psychosocial factors affecting the report of back injury Spine 16 pp.1-6
  7. (1973) Work in America: report of a special task force to the Secretary of State for Health. Cambridge: MIT press
  8. pALMORE, E. (1969) predicting longevity: a follow up controlling for age. Gerontologist 9 pp.247-50
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