Stress: What Is It and What Can Be Done About It?

By Robert H. Phillips, Ph.D.

What is Stress?

Stress is a response that occurs in your body. It helps you mobilize your strength to deal with different things happening in your life. Many things occur each day, which require you to adapt. These are the stressors. All of the changes that occur in your body when something (the stressor) provokes you is called the stress response.

Is Stress Good or Bad?

A certain amount of stress is normal. Not only is it normal, but it’s necessary. You need stress to get your act together, to prepare you to handle your life in the best possible way. Now you may be thinking, “So why do I always hear people talking about how stress can be harmful?” The answer: when people talk about the harmful effects of stress, they mean when there is too much stress. It can become destructive. It can eat away at you and drain all of your energy if left unchecked.

Reasonable amounts of stress can be handled. In fact, they can be helpful. In this article, however, we’ll be talking about harmful stress, the type that can hurt if not controlled.

The word “stress” is being used frequently these days. It’s being used to refer to things which create nervousness, anxiety, tension, anger, or the feeling of being upset. These are actually all part of stress, rather than the same thing. In other words, they may cause the stress response.

Who Feels Stress?

Everyone experiences stress. Nobody escapes it. But since stress can be positive or negative, if you can learn how to respond positively you will lead a more successful emotional and physical life. If you have a hard time responding to stress, this won’t be easy. Some people see to be more vulnerable to negative stress responses than others. Are you?

The Stress Response

Every person has a unique way of responding to stress. Stress control (controlling the way you respond to stress) is within your reach. Your pattern of response depends on a number of things including upbringing, self esteem, beliefs about yourself and the world, what you say to yourself, and how you guide yourself in your actions and thoughts. The degree to which you feel in control of your life also plays a role in your response. The way you feel physically and emotionally, and the way you get along with people are also part of it. To sum it up, each person’s way of dealing with stress is unique and individual, and depends on a complex combination of thoughts and behaviors.

Stressors + Interpretation = Stress Response

The way we respond to stress depends on a chemistry between factors. What factors? The first factor is the stressor, the pressures from outside of you. What is going on around you that is creating the reactions? The second factor is that within you, how you interpret things. It is the interaction of the stimulus and your own internal reaction that determines your response to stress. It is also the way you interpret the stressor. Some stressors in the environment naturally produce stress in everybody. Like what? What would happen, for example, if somebody pointed a knife at your face? Calm acceptance, or a stress response? Get the point? It’s important to learn how to reduce the number of stressors that negatively affect you, and how to improve the way you react to the stressors that you can’t avoid.

How to Deal With Stress

Remember: stress can be managed, it can be controlled, but it cannot be eliminated. Stress will always exist.

Let’s start out by mentioning the wrong ways of responding to stress. These are the ways that don’t help you: smoking, drinking, using drugs, over-eating, and over-activity. They may distract you or delay the effects of stress. So what should you do? You’re trying to learn new, more appropriate ways of dealing with stress than the methods you’ve been using.

Relaxation Procedures

The best way to start controlling stress is by using relaxation procedures. Relaxation is the opposite of tension. If you learn to relax, you will not be tense. In addition, you will be better able to identify those problems which are affecting you, and you’ll be better able to figure out how to deal with them. So relaxation procedures can be an essential first step in coping with stress.

How do you relax? This doesn’t mean sitting in front of the television with a can of beer! There are different types of relaxation procedures. Progressive relaxation is a procedure in which you learn how to relax the muscles in your body. Hypnosis is another relaxation procedure, as is meditation and relaxation response. There’s also the procedure called imagery, where you select pictures in your mind that will help to relax you, thereby helping you to solve problems. Books on any of these procedures are available in your local library, an can really help you learn how to start feeling better. Future issues of E-Cope will discuss a number of different relaxation techniques.

Channeling Stress in Positive Directions

Stress is a type of energy, which needs to be released. It can be handled either positively or negatively. Stress is negative when you are not able to handle it well. So to learn how to cope with it well, you must first identify your stressors. What specifically is causing you to feel stress? Maybe it’s pain. Maybe it’s on-the-job pressure. Maybe it’s the problem of a dissolving relationship. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

But what if you’re not sure what is causing it, yet you feel like something is going on? How can you figure out what it is? One way is to keep records of your activities, what you experience, and to use numerical ratings, such as a scale called the SUD scale. SUD stands for Subjective Units of Disturbance. How does it work? Ratings on this scale range from 0 to 100, depending on the amount of stress you are experiencing. Use 100 to represent the most extreme, disturbing stress, and zero to mean no stress (totally and completely relaxed). Then rate your activities and experiences on the SUD scale. The ones with higher SUD numbers are the ones causing you stress. Now you are ready to move on.

What’s the next step? When you recognize which stressors are negative, try to determine whether or not you can eliminate them. If you can, start figuring out how to do it. Removing the source of stress is an obvious and logical way to manage stress. Develop a plan designed to remove or minimize the impact of the stressor. But, on the other hand, if you realize that you can’t eliminate the source of stress, you’ll then have to work on the way you’re interpreting what’s going on. You’ll have to work on your thinking and your responding in order to manage stress. In these cases, changing the stressor is out of your control, but changing the way you react is in your control.

Finally, different physical activities can be great for stress control. For example, some people can relieve tension or stress by driving. As long as the driver continues to observe the rule of safety, driving can be relaxing.

In Conclusion…

What are your goals? If stress is interfering with your achievement of these goals, then your response to stress is negative. Learning how to control stress can be a very necessary part of successfully achieving your goals, as well as learning how to cope more effectively. And there’s so much you can do…

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How Can We Help?

Many people from all over the world have benefited from the successful, strategy-packed mental health services offered by The Coping Counselors at the Center for Coping. You can, too!

  • If you have questions about any of the issues you are dealing with, why not set up a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our Coping Counselors?
  • Simply call us at (516) 822-3131, with any questions or to set up your free appointment.
  • Or e-mail us at info@coping.com. We’ll be happy to respond to your e-mail.

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