In order for stress to rise, one must first recognize the demands and pressures as stressors. Becoming aware of the presence of a stressor and giving it that label does not however necessarily and/or automatically imply the emergence of stress. After the recognition comes the evaluation of the stressor. An appraisal is a highly subjective and personal process. The conclusions drawn at the end of this evaluation process will determine the actual level of the stress felt. When confronted with a stressor we immediately start asking ourselves many questions regarding the stressor and our own abilities, capabilities and resources to deal with the stressor.
A few examples of questions that run through our minds: how important is this to my life? How much threat does it actually form?or What makes it difficult?. The appraisal of a stressor as threatening does not only imply as a danger to our physical well-being but also to our beliefs system, psychological well-being(e.g. self- esteem, emotions), job, social status, possessions, reputation, time, relationships with others and much more. The intensity of stress levels experienced due to the perception of threat is similar whether the threat is real or imagined. One also asks oneself, do I have the coping skills and resources to cope with it(e.g. time, knowledge, problem solving skills, emotional capabilities, energy, money, health, social support)? Do I believe that I can efficiently and effectively deal with this stressor and its implications on my life?
The answers to the questions that we pose ourselves at the time will influence how we will react to the stressor. The level of the stress and anxiety experienced is thus influenced by the individual’s perception. When we assess that we have the abilities, resources and control to cope with the stressor than the level of stress will be relatively low. In the same manner stress and anxiety levels will increase the more we see ourselves as incapable and lacking in resources /or abilities, as well as, perceive the stressor as extremely daunting, overwhelming and threatening. The next articles will further explain appraisal, beliefs and other influential factors on the level of stress which one experiences.
The appraisal of the stressor as threatening and stressful causes the body to immediately and automatically react. The nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones, among which are adrenaline and cortisol. This release leads to many physical changes within the body and prepares it to fight or flight. The hormones increase our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolism and muscle tension. The pupils dilate, perspiration rate increases and senses become sharper. These physical changes increase physical strength, stamina and the speed of reaction. This is a normal animalistic survival reaction. Once the body is prepared for action, we choose whether we want to solve, cope and neutralize the source of stress (fight) or avoid and escape the stressor (flight). When one perceives that the stressor is no longer a threat than the levels of stress decrease. The parasympathetic nervous system sends the body signals to calm down, save energy and relax muscles. The previously mentioned organ activities decrease and return to a normal functioning level. The ability of the body to calm down and reset is very important as it helps to conserve energy, heal, function healthily for the long run and prepare itself for the next crisis. Physical problems start developing in cases in which stress is constantly being perceived and the body gets stuck in a hyper-arousal activity loop. These potential complications will be discussed later on.
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