Question: which of the following can cause physical, emotional,
or mental stress?
A. Chronic pain
B. Inadequate diet
D. Skimpy sleep
E. All of the above
Answer: E, of course!
As you can imagine, the lengthy list of possible stressors is getting longer due
to our changing world and hectic, modern lifestyle habits. But it isn’t only
challenging events and conditions that cause stress. It is also our perceptions
about events or conditions that can set off the stress response with such gusto.
This understanding of stress helps shed light on the incredible power that our minds
have over our health and well-being.
“It’s not stress that kills us. It is our reaction to it.”
When we perceive something as threatening — at least on some level —
it triggers our stress response, a mechanism that is intended to temporarily
help protect us from physical harm. If you perceive something as stressful, and
that perception lasts and lasts, your body will continue to prepare for an emergency.
It’s the ongoing “survival mode” status that can cause many unpleasant
physical and emotional symptoms.
You should know that sometimes the greatest source of perceived stress can be your
own personal story. Your emotional composition — which starts in utero
before you are even born — can directly influence what your body interprets
as stress. When something happens in your life that connects in some way to your
history, it can generate an immediate stress response that is, in many ways, automatic.
And you may not even be aware of it.
But while you can’t relive your childhood or change what happened when your mother
was pregnant with you, you can begin to understand more about why something is particularly
stressful for you. That makes it more likely that you will then be able to find
ways to soothe your reactions to stress and learn
how to calm anxiety.
What happens to the human body during the three stages of stress?
It’s interesting to note that there was no universally accepted word for “stress”
until 1936, when Canadian physician and researcher, Dr. Hans Selye, who had been
studying the concept, identified the three universal stages of stress:
1. Alarm — with the first
whiff of possible danger, your body prepares for “fight or flight” by
redirecting all energy from normal functioning into survival, pure and simple. At
this point, the adrenal glands get the signal to produce and send out an initial
surge of “stress hormones.” These hormones — including cortisol
— tell your body to get ready for an emergency. Among other changes, your heart
rate and blood pressure increase to help you flee if necessary.
2. Resistance — if the perception
of stress continues, your body enters a second stage that allows your hypothalamus,
pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (the HPA axis or loop) to pulse out a more consistent
supply of stress hormones. Stress hormone levels will remain high to help the body
handle what it interprets as an ongoing threat to survival. This occurs even if
the perceived stress is triggered by something that is not life-threatening, like
a problem at work or a difficult relationship with a family member.
3. Exhaustion — if the perceived
stress is unrelenting, your body eventually reaches a point when it can’t
keep up with the ongoing physical demand of making and delivering high levels of
hormones. The adrenal glands begin to give out. Other important functions —
including those related to the immune system — are compromised and may begin
to generate secondary problems. At this point, you’ve begun to notice symptoms
and your overall health is affected.
After a stress event, your body wants to recover quickly and return to normal (homeostasis).
But even if you may not be aware that it’s still going on, your body and mind
can continue to perceive stress, long after the event is over and feelings of nervousness
or tension have passed.
That perception can keep pushing the “on” button of your stress response, which
can eventually force your body, and particularly your adrenal glands, into a state
of fatigue or imbalance, or even exhaustion. The
symptoms of adrenal fatigue or imbalance are very disruptive and include
fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, depression, hair loss, acne, food cravings,
stress and thyroid issues, and more.
To your body, there is no such thing as “just stress”
Beyond the most apparent stress-creating events, such as job loss, serious injury
or illness, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or trauma, hidden stressors
may also be lurking in your daily life. Even if you consider a worry or concern
“minor” in comparison to the bigger, more overt types of stressors,
these everyday bits and pieces of stress can still be destructive to your health
“If you ask me what is the single most important key to longevity, I would
have to say it is avoiding worry, stress, and tension. And if you didn’t ask
me, I’d still have to say it.”
We talk to many women who are experiencing the emotional and cognitive effects of
stress — fuzzy thinking, forgetfulness, fatigue, and headaches. What we’ve
noticed is that these women often blame themselves for these feelings, mistakenly
believing that their symptoms are signs of weakness, rather than indications of
an over-stressed life. But perceived stress is a very personal problem. What causes
stress for you might not do the same for someone else.
Even low-grade worry and anxiety can keep your body’s stress response in high
gear. In some ways “minor” stressors may be even more harmful because
you’re often not aware of them. But these fragments of stress that you carry
around every day may be causing symptoms and chipping away at your sense of emotional
Is it even possible to reduce stress in your life?
Revealing your own hidden sources of stress can help you determine if daily habits
and patterns may be affecting your emotional health right now. Since perceived stress
is highly individual, only you can identify the true sources of stress in your life.
And it’s also up to you to take action to reduce, manage, or eliminate these
Consider these ideas and practices to help lower the level of stress in your life:
- Become aware of your expectations concerning other people in your life, as well
as events and experiences. When you allow your expectations to be realistic, it’s
less likely that you’ll be disappointed. That can help prevent stress in the
- Accept that there are many aspects of life that you cannot change, especially when
it comes to other people. Practice letting go, mentally and emotionally, of things
that are out of your control. (And it does take a lot of practice!)
- Improve communication with family, coworkers, and friends to help reduce possible
misunderstandings. The phrase “being on the same page” has become a
cliché for a reason: when you share an understanding with another person, it can
help your life run more smoothly.
- Pay attention to any habits and patterns in your life that might feed stress and
its effects. Sometimes we just get used to life as it is, and feel that our patterns
are “etched in stone” and we can’t change them. But if we become
more conscious of our routines and tendencies, we can often see more clearly how
we can modify our habits in order to generate less stress.
Introducing the Women's Health Network Stress Quiz to help identify hidden stressors
in your life
We’ve created the Women's Health Network Stress Quiz to help you become more
aware of the worries and concerns that might be secretly causing you stress. Uncovering
these stressors can be an enlightening experience that can help tamp down your emotional
responses to stress. And it can open up new ways of thinking about how you live
each day. You may even realize that you can completely eliminate certain stressors
While it’s impossible to get rid of all the stress in your life you can find
ways to manage it more effectively and maybe even to use it to your advantage. Even
Dr. Hans Selye — the man who coined the term “stress” —knew it
was possible to turn stress around. He said, “Adopting the right attitude
can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”
The Stress Quiz is an opportunity to find out if certain ongoing, everyday tasks
may cause you to carry around worry, concern, and stress without knowing it. Each
of your responses on the quiz will be assigned a number value and your “score”
will be tallied at the end to help classify your level of stress.
Note: the quiz is not intended to chart stress associated with severe past trauma,
neglect, and abuse, all of which are usually obvious sources of stress. These often
require professional help for healing and stress management.
Complete the Women's Health Network Stress Quiz below to get started.
START OUR STRESS QUIZ NOW
As you learn more about the stress to which you are exposed regularly, you will
want to explore the many available ways to reduce its negative effects. This is
an especially important if there are other people depending on you. Your ability
to take care of others is reduced if your own health and well-being are being affected
At Women's Health Network, we can show you how to take good care of your body and
emotional health through supplementation, targeted adrenal support, and diet and
lifestyle changes for
stress relief. The silver lining to stressors is that when you become more
aware of what triggers stress in your life, it can help you establish fresh patterns
that support your health emotionally and physically. That support can help you feel
better now and enjoy life more going forward.