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Understanding Stress – A Basic Outline

By Dr. Brian Allison


Stress is that physiological state in which the body is aroused, strained, or taxed beyond the state of rest.

There are two basic kinds of stress: 1) physical stress (e.g. walking up stairs or carrying bags of groceries); 2) psycho-emotional stress (e.g. being late for an appointment or being stuck in traffic).

Both physical and psycho-emotional stress make the same demands upon the body’s resources, reserves, and defenses. (The emphasis in the outline here is on psycho-emotional stress).

We can define stress as the physiological state in which demands are put upon the body’s energy production, distribution, and supplies in order to deal with a stressor. A stressor, which gives rise to stress, is some precipitating event, situation, or state of affairs (e.g. being stopped by a police officer for speeding; or arguing about family finances with a partner; or being harassed by relentless guilty thoughts).

There is good stress (e.g. athletic competition) and there is bad stress (e.g. stewing over a job interview). Without the stress system and responses of the body, we would die (e.g. Addison’s disease). The experience of stress, and responding to it, ensures our personal (and even another’s) survival (e.g. responding to a child’s asthmatic attack). Thus, we have a double edged sword: Stress responses help us to survive, but stress itself must often be survived.

The potential problem is not necessarily stress, but chronic stress.

When stress becomes chronic stress, then the body is distressed. Distress is that physiological state in which the demands put upon the body’s energy production, distribution, and supplies exceed what the body is normally, comfortably, and healthily capable of generating.

Here is the general process of decline: DISTRESS/CHRONIC STRESS (e.g. persistent worry over finances)——>DETERIORATION/DISINTEGRATION (e.g. palpitations, fibrillation, high blood pressure)——>DISEASE (e.g. coronary thrombosis)——>DEATH (e.g. myocardial infarction)

Psycho-emotional stress begins with personal perception (e.g. failing to identify the aircraft as air-worthy and failing to accept the pilot as adequately trained). Perception is informed and shaped by personality/temperament, imagination, and environment. For example, in walking through a notorious section of the city late at night, one may seemingly “perceive” many dangers.

The critical point is: Controllability (i.e., being and feeling in control) determines the intensity and efficacy of stress. Controllability entails predictability (i.e., one can anticipate and influence the outcome) and “successability” (i.e., one believes they can achieve the desired goal) (e.g. having an assigned text to read at a social function, as opposed to speaking extemporaneously).

Physiological process of stress: Perception—->(signals)—->Amgydala (Surveillance or Warning System)—->(signals)—->Hypothalamus (Control Centre, releasing CRF)—->(signals)—->Pituitary gland (Chief Commander, releasing ACTH)—->(signals)—->Adrenal glands release and trigger: Glucocoritcoids (including cortisol), Catecholamines (Special Forces)


1. Releases glucose (glycogen) and lipid (triglycerides, fatty acids)
2. Catabolizes protein
3. Communicates with liver to produce more glucose.
4. Suppresses the immune system.
5. Stimulates the cardio-vascular system (e.g. increase in heart rate and arterial blood pressure)
6. Stimulates anti-inflammatory responses

Sustained cortisol production results in elevated glucose and lipid levels (precipitating diabetes, obesity, heart disease), as well as in the depletion and malfunction of other hormones and neurotransmitters (precipitating depression, sleep deprivation, mental confusion).

Stages of Chronic Stress

1. Release of Energy Stores (resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, sweating, decreased digestive rate, etc.)
2. Consumption of Energy Stores (if no escape from stage one, the body releases stored sugars and fats–using and depleting valuable resources. One then feels driven, pressured, tired, and fatigued, typically accompanied by an increase in smoking, coffee drinking and/or alcohol consumption, memory loss, acute illness, such as cold or flu due to immune system compromise.
3. Depletion of Energy Stores (if not resolved at stage 2, then one may feel chronically stressed—the body’s need for energy resources exceeds its ability to produce them).

Chronic Stress Syndrome

• Sleep deprivation (insomnia)
• Irritability
• Lethargy (involving errors in judgement)
• Anxiety/Depression (mental illness, personality changes)
• Increased heart rate and blood pressure (heart disease)
• Increased fat metabolism (obesity)
• Increased glucose production (diabetes)

Strategies to Manage Chronic Stress

Physical Skills

1. Breathing Exercises (Exhalation breathing – 10 min.; deep breathing – 3-5 min. for extra oxygen; and release of endorphins)
2. Relaxation Exercises
3. Physical Exercise (e.g. walking, cycling)
4. Healthy Diet (e.g. good fats, like omega 3 fatty acids; reduction of sugars; balanced and moderate diet; vitamins and minerals, like the B Complex and D and calcium/magnesium; herbs, like licorice and siberian ginseng)
5. Recreation/Leisure (e.g. fishing, gardening)
6. Massage Therapy
7. Rest/Sleep
8. Retreats/Vacations

Mental Skills

1. Adjusting/Monitoring Perception
2. Meditation/‘Now’ thinking/Mindfulness training
3. Bio-feedback (self-awareness/self-talk)
4. Diversion techniques
5. Optimistic Outlook
6. Self-acceptance
7. Humour
8. Social Interaction

Spiritual Skills

1. Talking to the Higher Being
2. Simplifying Life
3. Helping Others

Practical Skills

1. Acquiring time Management skills
2. Having Fun
3. Having Hobbies/Personal Interests

© Brian Allison, 2010