Understanding Stress

What is Stress?

Session # 1

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upsets your mental balance in any way. When you feel threatened sense danger whether it’s real or imagined- the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid automatic response called the “flight or fight reaction. This is also now called the “stress response”.


The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. This biologically and genetically programmed response has protected man since the dawn of human existence. “When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of hormones. These “stress hormones include adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action. For example, your heart pounds faster, your muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, your breath quickens and your physical senses become sharper. These physical symptoms increase your strength speed and stamina. Your reaction time quickens and your focus is enhanced. This stress response prepares you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand, hence the name fight or flight reaction.

The stress response is the evolution of the fight or flight response. It is your body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused energetic and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life. For example, it can produce extra muscular strength to defend you from an attacker. It can provide you extra speed to allude a pursuer. It can increase your ability to respond under pressure by slamming on the brakes to prevent a car accident.


In this way stress can actually be beneficial. In everyday life the stress response can help you meet the constant challenges of daily life. For example, the stress response can keep you energetic during that critical work presentation when you would otherwise be exhausted. It helps you to meet that important deadline for completion of that special project. It serves to sharpen your ability to focus and be productive under pressure.

The problem with the stress response is that it is automatic and not under our conscious control. Moreover, those same hormones that produce beneficial effects quickly produce deleterious side effects when stress levels are out of control.

The body stress control system is very sensitive and difficult to control. An analogy might be a furnace that has no thermostat. It will just continually produce heat whenever the valve is turned on. That continual heat can become overwhelming and dangerous unless we know how to stop it.

Whenever your body senses a threat it releases these stress hormones and begins the stress response. If you are unable to control the stress response that same stress response that was beneficial quickly becomes dangerously out of control. It overwhelms you and produces severe and serious side effects.

The signs and symptoms of stress overload are multi-faceted. Stress affects the mind, body and behavior in numerous ways. Further exacerbating the stress overload problem is the fact that everyone experiences and processes stress differently.

How do Humans Respond to Stress?

Psychologist Connie Lillas uses this analogy to describe the three most common ways humans tend to respond when they are overwhelmed by stress:

  • Foot on the Gas- an angry or agitated stress response. You become heated, keyed up, overly emotional and hyperactive.
  • Foot on the Brake- a withdrawn or depressed stress response. You may shut down, space out, and/or show little energy or emotion.
  • Foot on Both- This is a tense and /or frozen stress response. You may freeze under pressure and cannot seem to do anything. You may look paralyzed but under the surface you are extremely agitated.




Signs and Symptoms of Stress Overload

When psychologists evaluate a person to determine whether he/she is experiencing a stress overload that requires the assistance of a mental health professional, we look for specific sets of symptoms. These symptoms can be found in four distinct categories: cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioral. The following are some examples of the kinds of specific symptoms we look for.

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Poor judgment
  • A focus on the negative
  • Anxious or rapid thought
  • Constant worrying

Emotional symptoms

  • Moodiness
  • Irritability
  • Anger Issues
  • Agitation
  • A sense of loneliness
  • General depression
  • Problems with relaxation

Physical Symptoms

  • Constant complaints of aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea and/ or dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Tachycardia
  • Loss of libido
  • Frequent colds

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Eating problems (too much or too little)
  • Sleeping problems (too much or too little)
  • Procrastination
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Disorganization
  • “Self- medicating”
  • Nervous habits

How much Stress is too much?

This is a very personal question.

Because of the widespread damage that stress can cause and because stress is very idiosyncratic (everyone experiences stress differently), it’s important to know your own stress limit. During the course of your treatment I will give you several exercises geared to identify and examine your personal “life stressors” and stress tolerance level.

Some people appear to “roll with the punches”. Other people appear to crumble at even the slightest obstacle or frustration. Others appear to strive on the excitement and challenge of a high stress lifestyle.

What we do know is that your ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including your intimate support network, your general outlook on life, and your ability to gauge and modify your emotions, your genetics and finally, your knowledge and preparation.


Know more about stress management therapy in Orland Park, Illinois by Dr. Phillip Hawk