Nobody can escape stress. There are going to be daily challenges, big or small. It’s a part of life and for the most part, avoiding it isn’t a feasible solution for most.
In observance of Stress Awareness Month, UTA discusses the different perspectives of stress.
Stress is the body’s reaction to stressors, which are events in life, real or imagined, and any good or bad changes that take time to adapt to, psychology professor Jared Kenworthy said.
The narrative of stress being a bad influence on a person, psychologically, emotionally and physiologically, affecting the body’s functions, is not a foreign concept, Kenworthy said. But, like every coin has a flip side, so does stress, which can be good under the correct mindset and coping methods.
Whether stress is harmful can be determined by how an individual frames and assesses it and whether it’s viewed as a threat versus a challenge, he said.
Two different physiological indicators are measured: heart rate and total peripheral resistance.
Heart rate is measured as the individuals’ cardiac rate and blood that’s being pumped.
Peripheral resistance measures whether the individuals’ blood vessels are dilated or constricted.
If the person’s mental framing and the appraisal of a certain negative event is a challenge rather than a threat, their physiology looks very different, Kenworthy said.
When a person views it as a threat, their heart rate increases, but the blood vessels are constricted, which can be dangerous, he said.
However, when they frame stress more positively and view it as a challenge, the heart rate continues to climb because it’s still a difficult situation to go through, but the blood vessels dilate instead, which can actually be healthy.
The way an individual perceives stress has also shown correlation to life expectancy, according to a National Center of Biotechnology study. If they perceived it to be harmful, their risks of premature death increased by 43%.
However, those who reported high levels of stress but didn’t perceive them to be harmful had a lower chance of premature death, even compared to those who had lower stress.
Tracy Greer, Penson Endowed professor in Clinical Health Psychology, said before stress gets to its negative aspects, it can be motivating.
“If you’re thinking about [a stressor] in the context of determining how you can take an action to help alleviate the stress, then that can be helpful,” Greer said. “Acknowledging that and knowing that can be helpful to not immediately be concerned about it.”
Psychology senior Jesse Webb said he feels stressed hearing the endless rhetoric of exercise being a primary means of managing and balancing good mental health during his class.
“I’m a very sedentary person. My hobbies are drawing, airbrushing like 3D prints, coding, playing video games [and] watching movies,” Webb said. “All those activities are pretty sedentary last time I checked.”
This stressed him to the point that he took the stress as an extrinsic motivation to take action and get a gym membership.
“To me, that’s a good stress, like that’s just emerg[ing] from the lack of doing things,” Webb said. “It actually motivated me to go out and do something.”
Kenworthy said there are positive ways to cope with stress, including a mental mindset of planning for events that trigger stress.
For example, preparing a healthy response to deal with potentially stressful situations like exams or assignment due dates can help channel a positive mindset toward stress by viewing it as a challenge.
When it comes to coping mechanisms, there are two primary categories: avoidance or approach, he said.
Avoidance is a bad coping mechanism where one denies there is a problem, Kenworthy said. This is where procrastination arises, as an individual is more focused on getting rid of the negative feeling attached to stress rather than the stressor in itself.
Approach is a more effective method where individuals can identify the steps needed to tackle the actual issue, move forward and accomplish the task, he said.
An important aspect of coping with stress is having a social support system to fall back on, Kenworthy said.
Webb is legally blind and has no vision in his left eye, and therefore, cannot drive. This is a huge stress factor for him.
“If I’m not careful, I get into a headspace where I think of myself as a lesser human because I can’t drive,” he said. “But how I get myself out of that headspace is recognizing that I have the luxury of a support system in which I have friends and family who won’t even bat an eye helping me get somewhere.”
Greer said eating well, getting exercise, mindfulness and meditation are ways people can alleviate anxiety and can become helpful activities in coping with stress.
However, sometimes stress can be a dire problem too, she said. When the stress lingers, it’s consistent and disrupts daily life causing physical or mental symptoms, it becomes harmful.
Symptoms can be physical like heart racing, sweating or trouble sleeping, or mental, like feeling antsy, anxious or jittery.
Greer said the metric for knowing whether the stress one is experiencing is problematic differs from individual to individual.
One way to self-evaluate stress is asking if the stress being experienced is acute and something that a person can take action to find a sense of resolution or if it’s something that creates a feeling of ongoing discomfort, she said.
The bottom line is if the stress becomes ongoing and starts disrupting one’s mental health, ability to function in daily life or their quality of life, then it’s important to seek help, she said.
“We’re gonna have daily challenges no matter what,” Kenworthy said. “It’s a better idea to get into the habit of just seeing [stress] as your friend.”