The Confusion Called ‘Stress’


From the time Hans Selye defined “stress” in 1936 as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”, the world has a come a long way in our understanding of stress. Today we know it is multifaceted and more complex than we originally thought. The General Adaptation Model of stress that Hans Selye spoke about consisted of three stages:

  1. The alarm stage,
  2. The resistance stage, and
  3. The exhaustion stage

The alarm stage is characterised by the very familiar fight and flight response that prepares the body for immediate action, and is accompanied by a surge in certain hormones, triggering various physiological changes. In the resistance phase, the body’s hormonal levels lower, but do not return to normal. If the stressor is dealt with, the body returns to normal, however if the resistance phase goes on for long and the bodily resources are used up, it leads to the final stage of exhaustion. This leads to ‘diseases of adaptation’. Here, Hans Selye was talking about physical illness – but now, as we know, it can lead to various mental illnesses as well.

Another early model was based on the theory that both positive and negative life events tax the adaptation capacity of an individual leading to physical and mental health problems. This has received some criticism that a stressor which is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. However, by and large it has been found that life events that fulfil any of the following conditions are more likely to induce stress than others:

  • Extremes of sensory stimulation – noise, heat, cold, humidity, over-crowding
  • Disrupted physiological function, possibly as a result of disease, drugs, sleep loss, etc.
  • Sensory deprivation – isolation, confinement, underwork
  • Group pressure
  • Perceived threat to cherished values and goals
  • Lack of control over events

Let’s take the example of marriage. If the person getting married feels they have been pressurised into it and thinks that certain aspects of their personality may not be accepted in the marriage, then this event could lead to a lot of stress. However, if he/she feels that they have picked a partner who will accept them as they are and there is no pressure to conform to society’s rules about marriage, then they may not feel stressed. Sometimes, when both find that their assumptions are not true, it can lead to a reversal of their situations – the stress-free becomes the stressed and stressed becomes the stress-free. This leads us to the model that was developed based on the view that ‘thinking can make stress either better or worse’.

Lazarus and Folkman developed the transactional model of stress which states that it is not a particular event that causes stress but it is the person’s interpretation or appraisal of the situation that causes stress. There are two phases to this model: primary appraisal phase and secondary appraisal phase. In the primary appraisal phase the person determines whether a particular event is a threat to him/her. This can lead to three conclusions —

  1. the event is irrelevant
  2. the event is positive
  3. the event is negative

If the appraisal is negative, the secondary appraisal happens where the individual assesses his/her coping skills to deal with the problem. Stress happens when the individual perceives his/her coping skills to be less than what the situation demands.

As you can see, stress is difficult to define and understand because the experience of stress is so unique and personal to each individual.

Visualise passengers on a roller coaster ride. Some are hunched down in the back seats, eyes shut, jaws clenched and white knuckled, with an iron grip on the retaining bar. They can’t wait for the ride to end so that they can get back on solid ground and scamper away. But up front are the wide-eyed thrill seekers, yelling and relishing each steep plunge. And in between you may find a few with an air of nonchalance that borders on boredom.

So, was the roller coaster ride stressful?

The roller coaster analogy is useful in understanding why the same stressor can differ so much for each of us. What distinguishes the passengers in the back from those up front is the sense of control they have over the event. While neither group has any more or less control, their perceptions and expectations are quite different from each other. Often we create our own stress because of faulty perceptions that we can in fact learn to correct. People at the back of the roller coaster can learn to move to the front, and one of the most effective ways to do this is through the use of cognitive behavioral techniques.

Cognitive behavioral techniques enables us to identify our faulty cognitions and helps us challenge and change them. It also teaches us how not to avoid the stressor, as this behavior only serves to increase stress. The best bet to deal with stress is to create changes internally because trying to make sure bad things don’t happen is a futile and useless task. Stress is inevitable and inescapable – we need to learn to deal with it if we want to stand a chance at enjoying our lives.



Reshmi Sahadevan

Reshmi Sahadevan

Head of Psychological Services at Silver Oak Health, Reshmi Sahadevan is an expert in the field of psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Reshmi Sahadevan

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