What Causes Stress?
Stress generally refers to two things: the psychological perception of pressure, on the one hand, and the body’s response to it, on the other, which involves multiple systems, from metabolism to muscles to memory.
Some stress is necessary for all living systems; it is the means by which they encounter and respond to the challenges and uncertainties of existence. The perception of danger sets off an automatic response system, known as the fight-or-flight response, that, activated through hormonal signals, prepares an animal to meet a threat or to flee from it.
A stressful event—whether an external phenomenon like the sudden appearance of a snake on the path or an internal response, such as fear of losing one’s job when the boss yells—triggers a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that surge through the entire body. These hormones increase heartbeat and the circulation of blood to support quick action, mobilize fat and sugar for immediate energy, focus attention to track the danger, prepare muscles for movement, and more.
Lifesaving as the stress response is, it was meant to solve short-term, life-threatening problems, not extended difficulties such as daily traffic jams or marital problems. It generally takes some time for the body to calm down after the stress response has been triggered. Prolonged or repeated arousal of the stress response, a characteristic of modern life, can have harmful physical and psychological consequences, including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and depression.
How to Manage Stress
There are both physical and psychological steps one can take to blunt the stress response.
Strategies to reduce stress include meditation, yoga, and strenuous physical activity. Leaning on loved ones can also alleviate stress, but in more severe cases, seeing a mental health professional may be best.
Since the stress response begins in the brain with the perception of danger or the unknown, researchers now believe that the most basic, and likely most effective, way to diffuse stress is to change the perception of certain situations so that they are not seen as stressful in the first place.
Studies show that helping people see certain experiences—such as final exams—as demanding rather than dire protects individuals from the corrosive effects of stress while still delivering its positive effects, especially focused attention and speedier information processing. Changing the stress mindset not only minimizes the effects of stress, studies show, but it also enhances performance and productivity.
Coping Skills for Stress
Coping strategies—also known as coping skills—are the steps individuals take to deal with or offset the harmful effects of stress in their lives. Psychologists have identified dozens of possible coping strategies, which can be used in isolation or in combination with one another.
Coping behaviors can be positive—such as seeking support from loved ones or trying to see the stressor in a positive light—or negative, such as self-medicating with drugs or lashing out emotionally. Some coping strategies, such as humor, can be either adaptive (i.e. using humor to bond with others) or maladaptive (i.e. using humor to avoid confronting painful emotions), depending on the context.
Although there are many ways to categorize coping strategies, they are generally seen as being one of two types: problem-focused or emotion-focused. Problem-focused strategies attempt to address the cause of the problem or modify the primary situation; emotion-focused strategies, by contrast, take aim at feelings of distress.
While both types can be effective—or can backfire—many individuals find that a combination of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping strategies is necessary to navigate a stressful event.