What causes stress? Part of the answer is a "stressor". The other part is "stress
reactivity." A stressor is a stimulus with the potential of triggering the fight or flight response. The
stressors for which our bodies were evolutionarily trained were threats to our safety. The caveman who saw a
lion looking for its next meal needed to react quickly. Cavemen who were not fast enough or strong enough to
respond to this threat didn't have any worry about the next threat. They became meals for the
When you step off a curb, not noticing a car coming down the street,
and hear its horn, you quickly jump back onto the curb. Your heart beats fast, your breathing changes, and you
perspire. These are all manifestations of your response to a stressor, the threat of being hit by a car. Other
stressors you encounter have the potential for eliciting the same fight or flight response, even though it would
be inappropriate to respond immediately or with some action.
These stressors are symbolic
ones; for example, the loss of status, threats to self-esteem, work overload, or over-crowding. When the boss
overloads you with work, it is dysfunctional to fight with him or her and equally ridiculous to run away and not
tackle the work. When you encounter the stressors associated with moving to a new town, fighting with new people
you meet or shying away from meeting them are both inappropriate means of adjustment.
The point is that our bodies have evolved to respond to stressors
with an immediate action by altering their physiology for greater speed and strength. When we encounter symbolic
stressors, our bodies are altered in the same manner, although we do not use the changed physiology by
responding with some action. Therefore, we build up stress products. We do not use these stress products but
rather "grin and bear" the situation. The results are illness and disease when the stress reaction is chronic,
is prolonged, or goes unabated.
This need not be the case. We can learn to take control of ourselves
and of our bodies to prevent the fight or flight response from developing when encountering symbolic threats. We
can also learn how to use stress products once our physiology has changed to prevent them from resulting in
illness, disease, or other negative consequences.
Now that you know what a stressor is and what stress reactivity
entails, it is time to define stress itself. It is the combination of a stressor and stress reactivity. Without
both of these components, there is no stress. A stressor has only the potential of eliciting a stress
Imagine two people fired from their jobs. One views being fired as
catastrophic, while the other views being fired as less severe. The stressor (being fired) had the potential of
eliciting physiological arousal, but only the thought processes employed by the first person would result in
such a reaction. By definition, that person experienced stress. The second person encountered the same stressor
but perceived it in such a way as to prevent physiological arousal. That person was not stressed.
Goals of Stress
The goal of stress management is not
to eliminate all stress. Life would certainly be dull without both joyful stressors to which we have to adjust
and distressors needing a response. Furthermore, stress is often a motivator for peak
performance. Stress can be useful, stimulating, and welcome.
Therefore, even if it is possible, we do not want to eliminate all stress from our lives.
Our goal should be to limit the harmful effects of stress while
maintaining life's quality and vitality. With a great deal of stress, a great deal of illness occurs. However,
with only a minute amount of stress, illness could still happen. Thus, there is an optimal amount of stress that
Pioneers of Stress Management
In the early part of the twentieth century, Walter Cannon was a noted
psychologist employed at the Harvard Medical School. He was the first person to describe the body's reaction to
stress. Think of it this way: Your heart begins to pound and speed up, you seem unable to catch your breath, you
begin to perspire, your muscles tense and a whole array of changes occur within your body. He identified this
stress reaction as the 'fight or flight' response. Your body prepares itself, when confronted by a threat, to
either stand ground and fight or run away.
Using rats in an experiment and exposing them to stressors, Hans
Selye was able to specify the changes in the body's physiology. In his book "The Stress Of Life", he summarized
stress reactivity as a three-phase process called the general adaptation syndrome:
Phase 1: Alarm reaction - The body shows the changes characteristic of the first exposure to a
stressor. At the same time, its resistance is diminished and, if the stressor is sufficiently strong (like
extreme temperature), death may result.
Phase 2: State of resistance - Resistance ensues if
continued exposure to the stressor is compatible with adaptation. The bodily signs characteristic of the alarm
reaction have virtually disappeared, and resistance rises above normal.
Stage of exhaustion - Following long continued exposure to the same stressor, to which the body has become
adjusted, eventually adaptation energy is exhausted. The signs of the alarm reaction reappear, but now they are
irreversible, and the individual dies.
Selye said stress is "nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it." That means both good things (like a promotion) to which we must adapt (also called
eustress) and bad things (loss of a loved one, a.k.a. distress). Both are experienced
Other researchers have added to the work of these two scientists to
shed more light on the relationship of stress to body processes. With this understanding comes a better
appreciation of which illnesses and diseases are associated with stress and how to prevent these conditions from
developing. Others also helped clarify the effects of stress. Others have found ways of successfully treating
people with stress-related illnesses.
Stress may not just be bothersome but may be downright unhealthy, and
that stress may lead to other negative consequences, such as poor relationships with loved ones or low academic
achievement. Stress management is serious business to which some very fine minds have devoted their time and
effort. This study has paid off and is continuing to do so.
On the next
page we will talk about Stress and