What are the symptoms of stress, are there different types of stress and why do I get stressed when others don’t?

“We’re all under pressure at work – the whole team – it’s been like this all year. Management’s been giving us a hard time, the office politics has been tough and we all look worn out. But there’s a few of the team members look like nothing effects them – how can that be?”

In this further long study analysis of stress, we look into detail at the different types of stress, the symptoms of stress and also look at the reasons that some people are more susceptible to stress than others.

Stress is the way that our mind and our body responds, when we find ourselves in a difficult or threatening situation.

But is stress always a bad thing? Are there different types of stress and why are some people more susceptible to the effects of stress than others are?

Unfortunately, in today’s 24/7 always-on world stress is everywhere, we can’t avoid it – we can’t hide from it
Things might be difficult at work or at home – we might be worried about losing our job, or there could be financial or family problems – or it could just be the sound of screeching brakes behind you when you are driving or the critical presentation you are about to give to an important group of clients.

We now know, that our body is very cleverly “designed”, to deal with danger or physical threat.

We know that in response to a threatening situation, our body’s physiological response to stress, known as the “stress response”, takes over and releases a series of stress hormones into our system, that make significant physiological changes, that supercharge our body, helping to prepare us to defeat, or escape from, a physical threat.

We also know that stress can be very bad for our physical and mental health, but is stress always bad for us?

1.  Stress is not necessarily a bad thing

As we’ve shown, our stress response is critical to our ability to escape a dangerous situation, or perform under pressure, to deliver an urgent report, or give a presentation in front of a large group.

There are numerous examples of emergency service workers, soldiers, even ordinary citizens, who have performed seemingly superhuman feats, when confronted with a life threatening situation.

Independent of the health impact of exposure to long term stress, we also need to recognize that our performance under even short term stress is a balance.

As we’ve seen, we need physical and/or psychological stimulus to prepare our body for the highest level of performance – our body experiences physiological changes in response to stressors, our alertness increases and our attention sharpens.  So, as our stress and anxiety levels rise, so does our efficiency and performance – however, only up to a point!

The most famous research in this area, performed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and J. D. Dodson, resulted in the “Yerkes-Dodson Curve” below, which showed that as stress continued to increase, beyond the optimal point, eventually performance and efficiency declined.

2. What are the symptoms and signs of stress?

While the damage to our body can go well beyond the physical symptoms that we see and feel, it’s these symptoms that are sometimes a good first indicator, that we are feeling the negative effects of stress.

The American Institute of Stress, has created a list of 50 of the more common signs and symptoms of stress:

Frequent headaches, jaw clenching or painGritting, grinding teethStuttering or stammering
 Tremors, trembling of lips, handsNeck ache, back pain, muscle spasmsLight headedness, faintness, dizziness
Ringing, buzzing or popping sounds Frequent blushing, sweatingCold or sweaty hands, feet
Dry mouth, problems swallowingFrequent colds, infections, herpes soresRashes, itching, hives, “goose bumps”
Unexplained or frequent “allergy” attacksHeartburn, stomach pain, nauseaExcess belching, flatulence
Constipation, diarrhoeaDifficulty breathing, sighingSudden attacks of panic
Chest pain, palpitationsFrequent urinationPoor sexual desire or performance
Excess anxiety, worry, guilt, nervousnessIncreased anger, frustration, hostilityDepression, frequent or wild mood swings
Increased or decreased appetiteInsomnia, nightmares, disturbing dreamsDifficulty concentrating, racing thoughts
Trouble learning new informationForgetfulness, disorganization, confusionDifficulty in making decisions
Feeling overloaded or overwhelmedFrequent crying spells or suicidal thoughtsFeelings of loneliness or worthlessness
Little interest in appearance, punctualityNervous habits, fidgeting, feet tappingIncreased frustration, irritability, edginess
Overreaction to petty annoyancesIncreased number of minor accidentsObsessive or compulsive behaviour
Reduced work efficiency or productivityLies or excuses to cover up poor workRapid or mumbled speech
Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousnessProblems in communication, sharingSocial withdrawal and isolation
Constant tiredness, weakness, fatigueFrequent use of over-the-counter drugsWeight gain or loss without diet
Increased smoking, alcohol or drug useExcessive gambling or impulse buying 

3. Measuring Stress

While we can “feel” some of the physical symptoms of stress, one of the difficulties with managing stress, is trying to actually “quantify” and measure the levels of stress that we way you’re feeling.

If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol readings, you are easily able to quantify the results and the progress that you are making – however, with stress management, it can be difficult to quantify – how am I feeling this week, compared with last week or last month.

The are several quantitative measured for stress, including the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) and the more recent Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS) test.

Designed by clinical researchers, each of these are based on a self-assessment and reporting questionnaire, designed to measure in the case of the DASS test, your emotional states of depression, anxiety and stress, or in the case of the Perceived Stress Scale, it has been used to assess the perceived stressfulness of situations.

The DASS test allows you to respond to a series of questions that each relate to your feelings of depression, anxiety and stress, and allows you to measure, graph and assess the level of severity of these feelings, and compare this with “normal” levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

The long term benefit of each test, is to give you the ability to monitor and quantify changes in the way that you feel over time.

4. What are the different kinds of stress?

In order to implement the most effective stress management strategy, it is important to understand the different types of stress, together with the characteristics and attributes of each.

Psychologists define three different types of stress as follows:

(i)  Acute stress is the most common form of stress

Acute stress is typically caused by the demands and pressures of individual events in our day-to-day activities, such as running late for a meeting, the nerves of making a speech in front of people, or almost getting into a car accident.

This is the “fight or flight” response we feel when exposed to a stressful situation (or stressor) and is the “good stress” for our bodies, where the stress hormones act to help us perform better is a pressure situation.

Because this acute stress typically occurs only for a short period, it doesn’t have the time to do the damage that is done by long term stress.

Although, if we are exposed to too much acute stress, we can experience symptoms such as:

  • Emotional distress, such as anger, irritability, anxiety and periods of depression;
  • Physical problems, such as headaches, pain, stomach problems, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, dizziness, and shortness of breath and chest pain.

(ii)  Episodic Stress – is what we experience when we suffer acute stress too frequently.

This type of stress is common in people who always seem to be in a rush, taking too much on, while disorganized and unable to deal with the pressures and demands of the self-inflicted, unrealistic and unreasonable demands, that they have brought onto themselves.

It is also common in people we describe as “full-time worriers” – overly concerned and often anxious and worried that something terrible is going to happen.

Sufferers of episodic stress are often described as “Type-A” personalities, and tend to be abrupt, short-tempered, anxious and tense, while being competitive, aggressive and demanding.

The symptoms of this stress include:

  • Ongoing physical symptoms similar to that of Acute Stress;
  • Heart problems, including coronary heart disease; and
  • Anxiety disorders, emotional problems and longer periods of depression;

There is also an emotional reaction to a stress, which can appear as anxiety and aggression.

(iii)  Chronic stress – is the result of continued and ongoing exposure to stressors

The long term exposure to stress results in the body being in an almost permanent state of “fight or flight” response.

While acute stress (the short-term, one-off event stresses) can be sometimes “exciting”, chronic stress is the most dangerous and unhealthy form of stress, as it can make many destructive physiological changes to your body and mind and can destroy all enjoyment for life.

It is brought on by ongoing and highly stressful situations such as an unhappy marriage or relationship, long term financial stress, serious chronic illness, early childhood experiences, difficult workplace environments or serious family problems.

The physiological and psychological damage to our body that results from chronic stress can be life threatening, with serious illnesses such as heart attack, stroke and cancer, as well as serious psychological illnesses including clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, all linked in research studies to exposure to chronic stress.

5. Eustress and Distress

With stress being subjective (ie different people will have different reactions to the same situation), another way of considering and categorizing stress, is to focus not on the element causing the stress, but rather on how a person perceives the stressor.

This is what is known as eustress and distress.

Eustress can be seen as “positive stress”

Eustress was first termed in the seminal work of the researcher, Dr Hans Selye, with his work on the general adaption syndrome theory of stress, where he described eustress as “positive stress”, and in contrast, described distress as “negative stress”.

Eustress, or positive stress, is the stress that we get excited about – motivating us to continue working, and helping us to feel happy, challenged and productive.

Eustress has characteristics, in that:

  • It is an exciting, short term stress, that does not continue for days or weeks,
  • It motives us and focuses our energy and so helps to improve our performance and achieve better results;
  • While it may challenge us, it is stress that we feel we are able to cope with – that is within our abilities,

Distress is “negative stress”

Distress, on the other hand, is a negative stress, that feels uncomfortable or unpleasant and has characteristics in that it:

  • Can be short- or long-term;
  • Causes anxiety or concern;
  • Decreases our performance and feels like it is beyond our ability to cope;
  • As chronic stress, it can lead to mental and physical problems;

Examples of Eustress and Distress

Because stress is subjective and different people have different reactions to the same particular situation, it can be hard to categories stressors into definitive lists of situations that cause eustress or distress.

However, you can create lists of situations that the majority of people, most of the time, see as typically positive or negative.

In an attempt to identify a link between stressful events and illness, the psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe Social, examined the medical records of over 5,000 patents, and established a positive correlation between their life events and their illnesses, with a “life change unit” helping to quantify the negative event.

There results were published as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, known more commonly as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, with separate lists for each of adults and non-adults.

The negative life events/distress list for adults as developed by Holmes and Rahe, is:

Life event – Adults

Life change units
Death of a spouse100
Divorce73
Marital separation65
Imprisonment63
Death of a close family member63
Personal injury or illness53
Marriage50
Dismissal from work47
Marital reconciliation45
Retirement45
Change in health of family member44
Pregnancy40
Sexual difficulties39
Gain a new family member39
Business readjustment39
Change in financial state38
Death of a close friend37
Change to different line of work36
Change in frequency of arguments35
Major mortgage32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan30
Change in responsibilities at work29

Life event – Adults

Life change units
Death of a spouse100
Divorce73
Marital separation65
Imprisonment63
Death of a close family member63
Personal injury or illness53
Marriage50
Dismissal from work47
Marital reconciliation45
Retirement45
Change in health of family member44
Pregnancy40
Sexual difficulties39
Gain a new family member39
Business readjustment39
Change in financial state38
Death of a close friend37
Change to different line of work36
Change in frequency of arguments35
Major mortgage32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan30
Change in responsibilities at work29

The same list as identified for children/adolescents, is:

Life Event – Non-adultsLife Change Units
Death of parent100
Unplanned pregnancy/abortion100
Getting married95
Divorce of parents90
Acquiring a visible deformity80
Fathering a child70
Jail sentence of parent for over one year70
Marital separation of parents69
Death of a brother or sister68
Change in acceptance by peers67
Unplanned pregnancy of sister64
Discovery of being an adopted child63
Marriage of parent to stepparent63
Death of a close friend63
Having a visible congenital deformity62
Serious illness requiring hospitalization58
Failure of a grade in school56
Not making an extracurricular activity55
Hospitalization of a parent55
Jail sentence of parent for over 30 days53
Life Event – Non-adultsLife Change Units
Breaking up with boyfriend or girlfriend53
Beginning to date51
Suspension from school50
Becoming involved with drugs or alcohol50
Birth of a brother or sister50
Increase in arguments between parents47
Loss of job by parent46
Outstanding personal achievement46
Change in parent’s financial status45
Accepted at college of choice43
Being a senior in high school42
Hospitalization of a sibling41
Increased absence of parent from home38
Brother or sister leaving home37
Addition of third adult to family34
Becoming a full-fledged member of a church31
Decrease in arguments between parents27
Decrease in arguments with parents26
Mother or father beginning work26

In these days of “24/7 always on” connectivity, work and employment worries such as these are also common causes of distress:

  • Excessive job demands, either insufficient time or skills necessary to complete the task.
  • Job uncertainty and insecurity or major changes at work.
  • Conflicts with work colleagues, or managers.
  • Lack of training or lack of authority required to do the job;
  • Making presentations to colleagues or clients.
  • Unproductive and time-wasting meetings.
  • Excessive travel or commuting to work.

Examples of eustress – positive stress situations, that get us excited, can include:

  • Exercising or physical training;
  • Starting a new job, or getting a raise or promotion at work;
  • Starting a new relationship or getting married;
  • Having a baby;
  • Buying a home or moving to a new, exciting home
  • Taking a vacation or holiday.
  • Retiring
  • Taking educational classes or learning a new hobby.

Stressors can be both psychological and physical – that is, our internal feelings or habitual behaviours can be as much a cause of distress as a physical situation.

Men and women can respond to stress differently – Tend and Befriend

As we are well aware, men and women, can often view, approach and manage the same situation, in different ways.

Taking a very broad brush generalization, while men can be more prone to act in a more aggressive matter, women can have a tendency to be more considered and nurturing.

Much of the early work on stress considered only the “fight or flight response”, as the default stress response, however, it was the researcher Shelley Taylor and her colleagues, with their work “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females”, who analyzed the female stress response, proposing a new theory which they termed “tend and befriend”.

While both men and women have the same built-in physiological autonomic nervous system, to control the stress response for the survival of a physical threat, Taylor suggests that the female response to stress is part of the DNA and triggered through a combination of hormones and brain chemistry.

The biological basis for the “tend and befriend” response, appears to be the hormone oxytocin, where oxytocin promotes a connective and associative behavior, including maternal tending and social peer contact.

Studies showed that while fathers who experienced stressful workdays were more likely to be withdrawn from, or more conflicted with their families that evening at home. while in contrast, women responded to highly stressful workdays by being more nurturing towards their children.

In addition, studies have shown that this tend and befriend response, with the release of the oxytocin and the physical contact between mother and children, acted to neutralize the flood of stress chemicals released, and so decrease the Stress Engine/sympathetic nervous system activity, helping to return the body to balance.

In addition to the differences in our stress physiology, there are also gender and social factors, that support the difference between the way that men and women manage stress – especially long term, chronic stress.

While men tend to think their way through problems and look for solutions in isolation, women like to talk about and share problems, bonding quickly by sharing confidences.

  • Causes anxiety or concern;
  • Decreases our performance and feels like it is beyond our ability to cope;
  • As chronic stress, it can lead to mental and physical problems;

6. Factors that determine whether stressors are experienced as eustress, distress or neutral?

Because stress is subjective, there are a series of different factors that determine whether we experience a situation as eustress, distress or neutral.

In addition, these factors may change for us over time, changing our response to a particular situation and so, what may be considered a distress for us one month, may have no impact on us at all, at a later time, when our external environment changes.

These factors are a combination of “stress-prone and stress-resistant personality traits”, together with social and environmental factors, independent of the control of the person experiencing them.

In specific research that examined the link between personality type and the onset of cardio vascular disease, Dr Johan Denollet, found that while the prevalence of Type D personality (negative affectivity and social inhibition and so more stress prone), is 21% in the general population, it ranges between 18% to 53% in cardiac patients.

These factors include:

Stress Factors – Mind

  • Positive outlook
    • Do you generally have a mental attitude or view, where you expect positive outcomes
  • Emotion control
    • Are you able to control your spontaneous reaction to different situations that you face
  • Focus
    • Are you able to concentrate your mind to accomplish tasks and projects without becoming distracted
  • Peace of mind
    • Are you able to achieve a state of mental and emotional calmness, with no worries, fears or stress.
  • Self confidence
    • Do you have a feeling of trust in your own abilities, qualities and judgement?
  • Problem solving
    • Do you have the ability to define or follow a process for finding solutions to difficult of complex problems
  • Empathy
    • Do you have the ability to understand and share the feelings of other people

Stress Factors – Body

  • Physical activity and exercise
    • How much and how regular is your physical activity and exercise
  • Sleep and sleep habits
    • For how long do you sleep each night and how well do you sleep
  • Body image and weight control
    • How do you feel about yourself and your physical appearance
  • Eating and nutritional habits
    • How well do you eat? What is the nutritional quality of the food? What are your alcohol habits
  • Pain management
    • Do you suffer from chronic pain? How well do you manage the pain?

Stress Factors – External Environment

  • Time management
    • How well do you manage your time? Are you always late?  Are you always in a rush?
  • Clutter management
    • Is you workplace and home, free of clutter & mess
  • Problems in life
    • Do you have external pressures such as financial problems
  • Home and family life
    • Is your home and family life stable and happy, or is there unhappiness, uncertainty and instability
  • Planning
    • Do you have the ability to look forward & plan & schedule your tasks, projects, activities & goals
  • Sense of pressure
    • Do you feel that you are under constant pressure at home and at work

Stress Factors – Connection to Your Work and to Your Environment

  • Motivation
    • Do you feel desire, energy and interest in achieving goals that you set in your work and in other activities;
  • Connection to work
    • Do you feel a personal connection to work
  • Sense of purpose
    • Do you feel that your work has a definite purpose or is meaningful
  • Reaching out
    • Are you able to easily reach out and initiate contact with someone in order to get assistance or help when needed.
  • Social support
    • Do you have the support of friends and family
  • Work-life balance
    • Are you able to balance your relationship between work (career and ambition) and lifestyle (health, pleasure, family and personal development)

So what is the solution to living and working in a 24/7 always-on stressful environment?

In our 24/7 always-on “real world”, our lives will always be stressful – with work, family, relationship, finance, social, health and other challenges, we can’t simply walk away or escape the situations that cause us stress.

Because we can’t avoid stress, we need a solution that allows us to live and work in a stressful environment, without the damaging, serious, long term health risks caused by exposure to chronic stress.

The answer therefore, is stress management solution that allows us, at any time, to control our body’s response to a stressful situation and to the symptoms of stress when we feel them.

A system that allows us to:

  1.   switch-off our “Stress Engine” and stop the effects of the dangerous stress chemicals in our body, and switch-on our body’s “Relaxation Engine” and the flow of the neurotransmitters that encourage the relaxation and healing process.
  2.   relieve the symptoms of stress that we feel, and switch-on calm, when we’re feeling tense and frustrated; switch on energy when we are exhausted; switch on sleep, when our mind is still spinning; and switch-on concentration and focus when our brain feels scrambled.
  3.   repair the damage done to our body by past stress, but more importantly, to defend and protect our body against the effects of future stress.

A stress management solution that will allow us to live, work and love life – healthy and happy – within our 24/7 always-on high stress environment – safe from the damage that stress causes.

References

  1. Selye H. Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. British Medical Journal. 1950;1(4667):1383-1392.
  2. Shelley E. Taylor, Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A. R. Gurung, and John A. Updegraff , Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight Psychological Review 2000, Vol. 107, No. 3, 411-429
  3. Repetti, R. L. (1989). “Effects of daily workload on subsequent behavior during marital interactions: The role of social withdrawal and spouse support”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 57: 651–659. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.4.651.
  4. Denollet, J. K. L. (2000). Type D personality: A potential risk factor refined. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49(4), 255-266. DOI: 10.1016/S0022-3999(00)00177-X
  5. Holmes, Thomas H., and Richard H. Rahe. “The social readjustment rating scale.” Journal of psychosomatic research 11.2 (1967): 213-218.
  6. Lovibond, S.H. & Lovibond, P.F. (1995).  Manual for the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales. (2nd. Ed.) Sydney: Psychology Foundation.  ISBN 7334-1423-0.
  7. Cohen, S; Kamarck T; Mermelstein R (December 1983). “A global measure of perceived stress”. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 24 (4): 385–396. doi:10.2307/2136404. PMID 6668417.

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