It helps to think of stress as one part of a continuum of feelings. At one end is excitement and at the other end, depression. Stress and anxiety fall between the two extremes. The illustration here will help put this concept into perspective. Although these four states are similar, they are also different. The particular state you experience when threatened or challenged will depend upon how you believe you will cope with the situation. In any situation, you could experience one of these states or a combination of two states that are next to each other (e.g., excitement and stress, stress and anxiety). It is unlikely, however, that you would go back and forth between two states that are the farthest apart, such as depression and excitement.
How you respond to threats and challenges determines the level of stress that you may experience. It may help to think of your responses to stress as three distinct parts: physical, mental, and behavioral. All three responses are aimed at preparing you for action. Understanding the three types of response systems may take some of the mystery out of stress and enable you to more effectively deal with it.
The Physical System
The physical or physiological system includes all the changes that occur in your body when you are stressed. These changes can include increased heart rate and blood flow. The rapid heart rate and fast breathing you experience when under stress helps to provide more oxygen to your body tissues.
The physical response system is primarily automatic. You cannot eliminate these responses, nor would you want to. Stress serves an important protective function that can lead to greater accomplishments and may be enjoyable under the right circumstances.
The Mental System
The body does not act alone when preparing for action, the mind also is involved. The mental or cognitive response, occurs when your focus of attention changes. When under stress, you tend to scan the environment constantly, looking for signs of a threat or challenge. On one hand, this shift in attention is useful; if action is required, you will notice it quickly and may have preplanned an appropriate response. On the other hand, you may be easily distracted and unable to concentrate on any one thing. In the example of the office party, you may find yourself taking inventory of your coworkers feelings and attitudes toward the party, the food, and perhaps your possible behavior at the party. You may find it difficult to concentrate on your work, and you may begin to worry more and more as the date of the party draws near.
Worrying is a main characteristics of people under stress. A little worrying is normal—everyone does it. But people who are stressed have trouble turning off the worry. While worry may be useful if it reminds you of the importance of a task, when it begins to interfere with your work and other tasks, you may have started a vicious cycle. Obviously, you do not want to let worrying go too far.
The Behavioral System
Stress is likely to influence some of your behavior. You are probably familiar with your own nervous habits, such as pacing, tapping your feet, biting your nails, smoking, or snacking. Whatever your habits, you will probably notice yourself doing them more often when you are under stress.
As we have seen, each of the physical, mental, and behavioral response systems have their own characteristics and purpose; however, they also interact. Any one system can trigger the whole response system into action. Because each system plays a role in the entire stress response, it is important to learn to control each one, and proven methods now exist for accomplishing this.
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