Sun | Nov 18, 2018

Jennifer Ellison-Brown | Responding to stress

Published:Wednesday | May 18, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Learning to live and get along today is nearly impossible without stress. To succeed in an unpredictable environment that changes every day, working under pressure is what most people now live by. As a result, stress has become one of the most common problems we face and it undermines our ability to stay healthy.

The good news is that stress can be self-controlled. Stress can be accepted as a natural part of daily life. Even though everyone has to deal with it, few people seem to understand it or know how to cope effectively. A certain amount of stress is necessary for performance and well-being. It is difficult to succeed in life without 'runs, hits and errors'.

Stress is the non-specific response of the human organism to any demand that is placed on it. In simpler terms, stress is the body's mental, emotional and physiological response to any situation that is new, threatening, frightening or exciting.

Stress prepares the organism to react to the stress-causing event or agent, notably the stressor. The problem is how people react to the stress. Many people thrive under stress, others are unable to handle it.

An individual's reaction to stress determines whether it is positive or negative. Ways in which individuals react to stress can be defined as either distress or eustress. With eustress, health and performance continue to improve as stress increases. Conversely, distress refers to the unpleasant or harmful stress under which health and performance begins to deteriorate.

Stress is a fact of modern life. Everyone needs an optimal level of stress that is most conducive to adequate health and performance. When stress levels reach mental, emotional and physiological limits, it becomes distress and the person no longer functions effectively.

Chronic distress raises the risk for many health disorders - including coronary heart diseases, hypertension, eating disorders, ulcers, diabetes, asthma, depression, migraine headaches, sleep disorders and chronic fatigue - and may even play a role in the development of certain types of cancers.

Recognising and overcoming the problem quickly and efficiently are crucial in maintaining emotional and physiological stability.




Stressors can be pleasant; for example, attending a party (eustress), or unpleasant such as getting a bad grade (distress). The sequence of physical responses associated with the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is the same for both eustress and distress. It occurs in three stages - alarm, resistance and exhaustion.

Alarm stage

At this stage, the nervous and endocrine systems activate the 'flight or fright' reaction. During this stage the body is more susceptible to disease or injury because it is geared up to deal with a crisis. A person in this state may experience headaches, indigestion, anxiety, disrupted sleeping and eating patterns.

Resistance stage

With continued stress, the body develops a new level of homeostasis in which it is more resistant to disease and injury than normal. During the resistance phase, a person can cope with normal life and added stress.

Exhaustion stage

Forces during the alarm reaction and maintenance of homeostasis during the resistance stage require a considerable amount of energy. Therefore, if a stressor persists or others occur in succession general exhaustion will be the result. This is a life-threatening type of physiological exhaustion, characterised by symptoms such as distorted perceptions and disorganised thinking, linking to a variety of health problems.

Researchers have termed long-term wear and tear of stress response the allostatic lead. An individual's allostatic lead depends on factors including genetics, life experiences and emotional and behavioural responses to stressors. High allostatic lead has been linked with heart disease, hypertension, obesity and reduced brain and immune function. Repeated or long-term stress can cause physical, emotional, mental and behavioural effects, some of which can be very hard to relieve.




- Excessive perspiration

- Frequent illnesses

- Gastrointestinal problem

- Headaches

- High blood pressure

- Pounding heart

- Stiff neck

- Aching lower back




- Anxiety or edginess

- Depression

- Fatigue

- Impulsiveness

- Irritability

- Distrust

- Guilt

- Frustration

- Jealousy




- Crying

- Disrupted eating habits

- Disrupted sleeping habits

- Harsh treatment of others

- Problems communicating

- Sexual problems

- Social isolation

- Increased use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs




- Boredom

- Confusion

- Memory problems

- Lack of concentration

- Psychological fatigue

- Anxiety

- Poor decision making

- Accident prone

Are you or anyone you know experiencing some of these effects?