Larry Alan Nadig, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologsit, Marriage & Family Therapist

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by Larry Nadig,
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Last updated:
July 19, 2010

 

Stress: A Health and Relationship Killer

What is Stress ? 

There are many different definitions of stress. Some define stress to be a disturbance of a personís normal psychological or physiological state. Others consider stress to be a situational factor or distressing circumstance external to the person. Some use the word "stress" as a term equivalent to "arousal" and "activation"; it is also used as a term for "bad effects". The many different definitions of stress have caused a great deal of ambiguity and confusion about the subject. When reading an article, listening to a lecture or participating in a discussion about stress, be sure the definition being used is clear.  

One of the most useful definitions of stress is as follows: Stress is an internal process that occurs when a person is faced with a demand that is perceived to exceed the resources available to effectively respond to it, and where failure to effectively deal with the demand has important undesirable consequences. In other words, stress is experienced when there is an awareness of a substantial imbalance between demand and capability, under conditions where failure to meet the demand is perceived to have unwanted consequences.

Related Concepts 

Perception and awareness of the imbalance between demand and capability and the negative consequences of not meeting the demand is needed in order for the person to experience stress. The perception does not have to be accurate, however. A false belief can cause significant stress.

Stressors are the events and thoughts that lead the person to perceive that a threatening demand is being made. Strain is the negative effects of stress. Strain may appear as fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, medical and physical problems, insomnia, depression, anxiety, over eating, drug and alcohol abuse, risk taking, or diminished functioning, to name a few of the possibilities.

Stress can be positive and negative. On the positive side it alerts us to a threat and increases our level of arousal and activation which can help us be more effective in coping with the threat. It is mismanaged stress or an over-abundance of stress which causes strain and can be devastating for the person or the system.

The Process of Stress

When a potential stressor is perceived as threatening, the personís level of arousal is increased and stress is experienced.
The person selects from the available resources a coping response that is expected to be effective in reducing or eliminating the stressor.
If stress is successfully reduced the person experiences a relaxation of arousal and increased confidence in being able to handle future stressors.
If the coping response is not successful stress and increased arousal continue. If new strategies are not tried or are unsuccessful the prolonged stress and increased arousal results in strain.

Stress Management

There is no absolute right way to manage stress. The best approach is to assess the specific situation, tailor the method to the particulars of the situation, and then monitor its effectiveness. Stress management is directed at one or more of the five interacting components involved in the stress process: 1) demand, 2) awareness, 3) arousal, 4) capability, and 5) the negative consequences. Here are some examples:

 Identify and lessen the demands or increase capability by setting limits, i.e. saying "no", and by not taking on additional responsibilities before the existing ones are met or under control. Get more time or get extra help, or increase your effectiveness by utilizing better tools or by acquiring additional training.
Awareness, perception or the cognitive component, is likely the most important aspect. We need to be aware of all of the relevant issues concerning the demands, our capabilities, resources, and the potential consequences. We need to see these things accurately and clearly and plan accordingly. Our beliefs will determine how we handle the issues and how we feel. We could cause ourselves unnecessary stress by having false beliefs, or by being catastrophic in our thinking and believing something is awful or terrible when it is only difficult or unpleasant. We could also put ourselves in danger by having false beliefs, by using denial and avoidance and by not being aware of or perceiving a real threat.
Do something to reduce the arousal and tension and lower the level of activation. Take a break and stop thinking about the demands and consequences, relax and refocus on pleasant events. Work off the extra tension by exercising or participating in recreation and play. Get a massage, or take a vacation. The use of drugs or medication should be avoided or used only as a temporary last resort, because something needs to be changed not just tolerated.
Eliminate or lessen the effect of the negative consequences by preparing for them, changing the circumstances, or changing your thinking. Examples include putting money in an emergency savings account, buying insurance, changing jobs, crime prevention, earthquake preparedness, accepting what canít be changed and refocusing your thinking and energy into the what can be done to overcome the negative and make things better. Professional treatment can help minimize or eliminate any physical or psychological problems that have developed because of the stress.

Everyone experiences stress and is vulnerable to it. We do not, however, have to be helpless victims to it. We can manage it, reduce and control it, and can minimize or prevent the negative consequences.

Stress: Push the Limits and Risk Death

There are some similarities between mechanical systems and human systems that are useful in appreciating the powerful effects of stress. Every system, human or mechanical, has limits and requirements for effective functioning. Each system operates within the limits of tolerance for demands, pressures and tensions placed upon it. The electrical circuits in your house are capable of handling a limited amount of power. When more energy is demanded than is safe to handle, the circuit is broken or a fuse is blown. If the water pressure in your plumbing is higher than it is designed to handle, a fitting will eventually leak or burst. If you run your new automobile hard all the time and neglect the proper maintenance, it will start giving you trouble and will deteriorate more quickly. Keep neglecting it and it will breakdown and force you to attend to it. Pushing a system beyond its limits and neglecting proper maintenance invites deterioration and breakdown.

Just like machines, human systems have limits and breaking points and require maintenance. If you are under increased pressure, push yourself hard and neglect the proper maintenance on yourself, you will also deteriorate and eventually have a breakdown. Your body will force you to stop and attend to it. If you neglect the maintenance in your marital relationship, your spouse will start giving you trouble, there will be a deterioration of the relationship and a breakdown in communication and goodwill. Donít push yourself so hard that you use up all your best and have nothing left for your spouse and family but fatigue, intolerance and irritability. Donít risk the loss of your personal relationships or the loss of your health. Save some of your best for your loved ones and yourself.

Stress can be Harmful to Your Health

Inappropriately handled stress can be devastating. It lowers our resistance and makes us more vulnerable to illness and disease. The increased inner pressure can cause our health to deteriorate resulting in a variety of serious physical problems. Stress victims can become emotional cripples and physiologically old and run down long before their time. Stress can cause a loss of not only health, but also loss of jobs, loss of families, even loss of life.

Stress can be Harmful to Others

People under stress also make more mistakes, and these mistakes can cause others to be secondary victims to someone elseís stress. I would not want to have surgery by a stressed surgeon or be cared for by a stressed nursing staff. Nor would I want to be a passenger on a plane maintained by a stressed maintenance crew or flown by a stressed pilot. 


Common Symptoms of Stress

   

Physiological &
Behavioral

Increased heart rate
Rise in blood pressure
Dryness of mouth & throat
Sweating  

Tightness of chest
Headache
Nausea, vomiting
Indigestion
Diarrhea
Trembling, twitching
Grinding of teeth
Insomnia
Anorexia
Fatigue
Slumped posture
Pain, tightness in neck and back muscles
Urinary frequency
Missed menstrual cycle
Reduced interest in sex
Hyperventilation
Accidents and accident proneness
Altered food intake
Poor concentration
Disinterest in activities
Decreased involvement with others
Bickering
Smoking
Use of alcohol and drugs
Increased use of sarcasm
Tendency to cry easily
Nightmares
Complaining, criticizing

Affective

Irritability
Depression
Angry outbursts
Emotional instability
Withdrawal
Restlessness
Anxiety
Suspiciousness
Jealousy
Increased startle reaction
Decreased frustration tolerance

Cognitive

Forgetfulness
Poor judgment
Poor concentration
Reduced creativity
Less fantasizing
Errors in math and grammar
Preoccupation
Inattention to details
Blocking
Reduced productivity
Diminished problem solving

Spiritual

Expressed concerns about belief system.
Expressed concerns about relationship
with a clergy.
Separation from cultural and religious
relationships.

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Contents: .
Home 

How to Express

Difficult Feelings 

Tips on Listening 

Conflict: Healthy

or Unhealthy

Stress: Health &
Relationship Killer

Selecting a Mate

Weight Control

Holiday Blues

How to Get the Most From Therapy 

Psychological Tests

About Dr. Nadig

Treatment Philosophy

Professional Services and Fees