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WHAT IS STRESS?

 Several connotative words are frequently used to describe stress or feelings of stress, including tension, anxiety, frustration, threat, fear, strain, and pressure. All of these words constitute some mental or physical effect on the body. By the time these words come into play, stress is generally at a state in which there is a demand or urgency for action that will generate relief.

When this state occurs we must adapt, cope, or adjust. In general, stress prior to this point stress does nothing to disturb or disrupt the existing equilibrium of the mind or body. From this premise, stress will be defined as: anything or any situation that disrupts or disturbs the existing equilibrium of our mind and body, gradually or abruptly, in such a way that it demands adaptation, coping, or adjusting.

Inherent in this definition of stress is that our body, when under stress, changes from a state of relative calm to a state of excitation and alert. This change is in response and reaction to a perceived threat in our environment. This perception could be real, imagined, pleasant, or unpleasant. In many cases, low levels of stress persist in a physical and mental resistance state long after the presence of the threat has subsided or has gone below our level of consciousness. This is especially so when stressful situations go unresolved and linger for extended periods of time.

There are two sources of stress; primary and secondary. Primary stress is a high level of stress produced by direct encounters with a precipitating stressor that is perceived as dangerous or threatening to our body, mind or ego. It is an immediate stress that we are fully aware and conscious of at any given moment. Secondary stress consists of medium to low levels of stress produced by unresolved stressors that we may be conscious or unconscious of at any given moment. Worry, apprehension, fear, and guilt are examples of secondary stress.

The role of perception is important in determining the level of stress one will experience. Stress has to first be perceived as threatening in order for the body to trigger a stress reaction. Determining the level of threat is a process of appraising an event or situation that has the potential for stress. We appraise an incident according to how we feel it will harm our sense of well being in a physical or psychological way. Professor Richard Lazarus is credited for developing a unique model for understanding the appraisal process of stress as a threat. The concept of appraisal is used because it extends beyond perception and takes into account the way we think through the implications of a stressful event. He focuses not only on the way we perceive an event, but also on a number of factors that influence our perception. He described the various potentials for stress as transactions. The actual evaluation of a stress stimulus he referred to as the threat-appraisal process. Essentially, according to Lazarus, if there is no valid perception of threat, then there is no stress.

The stress-appraisal model is broken down into two parts, primary and secondary appraisals. Primary appraisals examine the potential stressful stimulus and one’s personality influences, while the secondary appraisal accounts for examining ones cognitive abilities for dealing with the stressor. Both primary and secondary appraisals occur simultaneously. During the primary aspect of the threat-appraisal we determine if a stimulus is a threat and examine several factors such as the extent of danger, how close it is to us, and amount of time we have to deal with it. We also measure the clarity of our perception of the stimuli as being harmful to us. Other factors concerned during this aspect of appraisal is whether or not the stimulus poses a threat or comes into conflict with our personal motives, goals, belief system, and values. Additionally, we consider our intellectual skills and ability to deal with the situation. Considerations of the primary appraisal will determine if the potential stressor poses a valid threat.

If it is determined that there is a threat, then we must decide if we have the ability and power to deal with it. In other words, “Can I cope?” This is the question that must be answered in the course of the secondary aspect of the threat-appraisal. Here we take inventory of our power to deal with the situation. The outcome will have an influence on the level of threat experienced by the occurring event.

More recent work by Lazarus describes what he terms as stress-reappraisal. Stress reappraisal takes into account the importance of emotional themes such as love, hate, anger and anxiety that arouse during the threat-appraisal process, and the effects they have on the outcome. Strong emotions of fear and anger that imply imminent danger during assessment of events could short circuit the process and trigger an immediate fight-flight reaction that places our bodies on alert and in preparation for dealing with the perceived threat or danger.

Source: Personalized Stress Management: A Manual for Everyday Life and Work
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