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What is stress?

Stress is a state of mental tension that can ruin life's experiences. People can get sick from stress, which can make life unbearable. The word and concept stress is often misused and misunderstood. Why do we get stressed, and why does life become so overly stressful? To answer these questions and understand the nature of stress, let's look at the three key components of stress.

The 3 stress components

The stress agent

The stress agent is a stimulus of physical, emotional, mental or social nature that generates a reaction in the body. The intensity of the stimulus varies based on the nature and duration of the agent. The agent could be a minor event (such as getting a parking ticket) or a major event (such as undergoing surgery). It could be a positive life event (such as the birth of a baby) or a negative one (such as family conflict). The stress agent can be planned and scheduled (such as a college exam) or totally unexpected (such as a car accident). The event trigger can be a physical or physiological action (such as an injury, taking a medication, an illness, etc). Whatever the source of the stress agent, the body will generate a chemical process to respond to it.

The stress reaction

In reaction to the stress agent, the brain triggers an alarm signal, which generates instant physiological responses, such as a rapid heartbeat, an adrenaline rush or sweating. These reactions, if they persist, can cause discomfort and psychological responses called symptoms of stress. The outline below details the physical, mental/emotional and behavioral symptoms of stress.

Physical symptomsEmotional and mental symptomsBehavioral symptoms
Muscular tension Anxiety  Difficulty managing relationships 
Loss of appetite  Irritation Disorganization
Sleep issues Indecision Negative perception of reality
Digestive problems Agitation Tendency to be isolated
Headaches Lack of happiness Uncontrolled consumption of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, food or caffeine
Vertigo/dizziness Melancholy Avoidance of complex situations
Fatigue  Decreased libido  
Shortness of breath Low self esteem  
  Difficulty concentrating  

Stress behavior

Stress's intensity depends on the message sent to the endocrine glands by the brain. Therefore, it depends on the mind's perception of the stimulus that has occurred. As an example, a 5-minute time delay is experienced differently depending on the situation.  The reaction will be different if we arrive 5 minutes late to a party versus if we arrive 5 minutes late at an airport boarding gate, thus missing an important plane flight). The stress reaction will also differ according to our education and values; so for example, if we learned that being on time has important value, we will feel even more uncomfortable if we are late.

In brief, stress is an immediate reaction, both psychological and physiological, from an organism to a complicated situation that must be adapted to.

The range of expressions of stress depends upon individual personality, education and values.

Most people fail to recognize that stress is a normal component of everyday life and that in certain situations, it can even be useful. People talk about "positive stress," which is stress that helps people perform better in certain situations. For example, positive stress that athletes experience before a sporting event or stress perceived by students before an exam can help them score higher.

Before drawing quick conclusions on the effects of stress on all the things that goes wrong in our lives, we can each identify the patterns and events that typically generate stress and try to find ways to short circuit its occurrence. For some people, this coping is through playing sports. Others prefer to turn to their family or friends to get advice, and some people choose to consult a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Emotional aspects

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