Stress is defined as demands that are considered personally important but taxing or exceeding ones capacities and resources. Thus, stress is a reaction to a demanding situation or any change that occurs in our life. The demanding situations and changes can be either positive (e.g., marriage, promotion, winning a lottery) or negative (e.g., loss of any kind, illnesses). Both kinds of stressors increase demands for readjustment and adaptation. Positive events such as marriage and birth of child also cause changes, but these changes are welcoming and therefore called ‘eustress’. The word ‘stress’ is primarily used for the changes that are unpleasant for the individual.
Various things can cause stress in our life. However, whether or not a factor will lead to stress depends on many factors. That is why instead of considering various factors as definitive causes of stress, they are considered risk factors for stress; that is, exposure to these factors increases the risk of stress in people. The stressors could be continuous or episodic. Examples of continuous stressors are - poverty, malnutrition, prolonged illnesses, migration and chronic strain. Examples of episodic stressors are - major life events (e.g., job loss) and catastrophic events (e.g., earthquake, floods), which do not occur regularly but are beyond our control.
There is nothing like severe stressor and mild stressor. Rather a seemingly milder event or situation can have severe impact (e.g., mood disturbances) because of its continuous presence. For example, daily hassles such as traffic jam, power cut, noise and pollution can be significant source of stress.
Further, whether or not an event or situation will be a source of stress depends on our perception (i.e., our outlook) and appraisal (i.e., our evaluations) of the situation also. The perception and appraisal of an event can be determined by many factors such as our past experiences, personality and so on. Thus, a seemingly simple event may be stressful for some people if not for all. Also, a situation that has the likelihood of causing stress for most of the people can be enjoyed by some. For example, frequent job changes can be stressful for most of us but an individual who likes novelty can enjoy it.
However, some situations are stressful for everyone. For example, loud noise at traffic, pollution, a work place with faulty management, peer conflicts, and situations that restrict our choices are unwelcoming for everyone and cause stress.
Works of two prominent psychologists Walter Canon and Hans Selye have provided important insights into the effects of stress and the underlying mechanisms. Canon proposed that stress forces us to mobilize bodily resources to either fight in the situation or run away. This is known as ‘flight or fight’ reaction. Though the reaction is useful to avoid harmful situations, continuous state of fight or flight is not healthy because it consumes lots of our psychological and physiological resources. Hans Selye conceptualized three stages of stress, which are very important for us to understand in the context of stress management. They are:
To sum up, in the first stage organism’s body responds to the stressful situation, and in the second stage the body returns to the calm stage when the stressor is no longer present. However, if the stressor is prolonged, the third stage ensues in which due to the long term effects of the stressor the individual becomes exhausted. All these are indicative of arousal of our body to fight with the stressor. However, prolonged arousal of our psychophysical system can lead to exhaustion of various systems such as cardiac system, digestive system and nervous system.
As explained in Hans Selye’s model, the stress may manifest differently at different stages. Initially it may manifest as changes in sleeping and eating pattern, and mood changes (e.g., not feeling well, irritability, anxiety or sadness, palpitations). If stress persists, eventually we may witness problems related to various bodily functions as well as significant behavioural and mood changes (e.g., not interested in meeting people, highly dependent on or avoidant of others, not interested in pleasurable activities).
All of us have our own ways of dealing with stresses. How an individual manages his/her stress is known as coping. Coping can take several forms, such as, problem-focused and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping refers to problem solving approach to a given issue. Emotion-focused coping refers to the efforts to deal with emotional distress arising from a frustrating situation. Both problem- and emotion-focused coping can be adaptive or maladaptive. For example, an individual can approach a situation with problem-focused approach but his interpretation of the problem and the determination of solutions can be unrealistic which may compound the stress. On the other hand, if an individual follows the acceptable problem-solving approach (defining the problem, identifying options, choosing best possible option, applying the option, monitoring and so on), the likelihood of solving the problem effectively and getting rid of the stress related to that problem increases. Likewise, an individual can use denial as emotion-focused strategy which will be ineffective. On the other hand, if someone interprets his emotional reactions to a stressful situation and works on reinterpretation of events, correcting maladaptive behavioural patterns and tailoring emotions accordingly, emotion-focused strategy can be effective.
Moreover, some methods may work better in one situation than the other. Likewise, a method that suits one person in reducing his/her stress may be ineffective for another person. Thus, it is important to understand what works for whom. Here a list of stress management techniques has been given. You may find many of these techniques familiar even if you do not know them by specific terms. However, before listing the scientifically accepted stress reduction techniques, it is also important to highlight some of the faulty steps people take to ward off their stress.
Stress can be output of faulty interpretation of events. For example, we may interpret something in extremely negative manner or become worried by imagining the worst possible outcome of an event. These interpretations, instead of the event, may make us worried. We may feel that imagining the extreme negative consequence will help us in remaining prepared for worst possible, but we forget that such things seldom happen. Therefore, a realistic evaluation of an event helps in reducing stress. For example, we can simply tell ourselves that we should behave in a manner most of the people behave in a given situation.
Likewise, we may pay attention to only the negative aspects of an event/situation (or even magnify the negatives) and overlook the positives. It creates distress. Sometimes we may feel stressed only because we predicted harm whereas there is none indicated (or very remotely possible) or we were unnecessarily blaming ourselves for everything that was either remotely or least connected to us. Again a realistic evaluation of the situation combining both positive and negative is important.
Use of an effective problem solving strategy can be the crux of stopping an issue to become a stressor. Effective problem solving has following stages:
Healthy life style can significantly help in preventing and reducing stress. A few things which can be done:
To avoid getting overwhelmed by various tasks, it is important that we manage our time effectively. Effective time management is indispensable for managing stress and following points can be useful:
Don’t we see a doctor if we have a physical problem? Similarly, we can approach professionals to deal with our stress. For better results it is important to consult at the beginning of the symptoms (problems with sleep and appetite or mood disturbances are the early indicators of stress and psychological disorders). Definitely consultation is warranted if there are other symptoms such as persistently low mood, suicidal ideas, death wishes, unprovoked aggression etc.
Many other things (apart from the ones described above) can be crucial for reducing stress. For example,
The above techniques are helpful to minimize the stress. But there are certain strategies that are helpful in preventing the stress. For example, seven health habits, commonly referred to as ‘Alameda 7,’ can be effective in preventing stress. These are: