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Stress: What is it? What causes stress?

by | Apr 25, 2021 | Stress | 0 comments

  1. What is stress?
  2. What causes stress?
  3. Symptoms of stress
  4. Psychological stress and disorders
  5. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: how to treat?
  6. Work stress
  7. Stress: conclusions

What is stress?

Stress is a psychophysical response to even very different assignments of an emotional, cognitive or social nature, which the person perceives as excessive.

There are two different types of stress according to the duration of the stressful event.

The stimulus of stress occurs once with a limited period, in that case, we call it “acute stress.”And the source of stress which remains over time has name ‘chronic stress.’ Chronic stress actually lasts a long time.

It invests several spheres of life and is an obstacle to the pursuit of personal goals.

Finally, chronic intermittent stress is defined as a framework for regular stress activation. With a limited duration and a good level of predictability.

Two categories can be identified alongside the time distinction according to the nature of stressful events.

In many cases, stressors are harmful and can lower the immune system – we speak, therefore, of distress.

On the other hand, stressors are beneficial since they promote a greater vitality of the organism. In this case, the expression eustress is used.

What causes stress?

Stress is a psychophysical response that the body performs in response to tasks assessed by the individual as excessive. This means that a stressful event for someone might not be so for others and that the same event in different life stages can be more or less stressful.

However, it is helpful to identify some factors that are typically stressful for most people. Many of the significant events of life can be stressful, both pleasant events such as:

  • marriage,
  • the birth of a child
  • new job,
  • the death of a loved one,
  • separation or retirement.

In addition to these events, we can identify some physical factors as frequent sources of stress:

  • intense cold or heat
  • alcohol abuse or smoking
  • severe movement restrictions.

There are also environmental factors that expose us to the risk of stress. For example, the lack of a home, the boisterous environments, high levels of pollution. Finally, we remember organic diseases and extraordinary events such as cataclysms.

Symptoms of stress

We often say that we are ‘stressed,’ But not all symptoms are easy to spot. And we can underestimate the problem. While it is difficult to provide an exhaustive list of all the symptoms of stress. It is helpful to identify the most frequent. Four categories of stress symptoms are identified:

Physical symptoms:

  • headache
  • back pain
  • indigestion
  • tension in neck and shoulders
  • stomach pain
  • tachycardia
  • hand sweating
  • extrasystole
  • restlessness
  • sleep problems
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • loss of appetite
  • sexual problems
  • ringing in the ears

Behavioral symptoms:

  • grinding teeth
  • compulsive eating
  • more frequent alcohol intake
  • critical attitude toward others
  • overbearing behaviors
  • difficulty in accomplishing tasks

Emotional symptoms:

  • tension
  • anger
  • nervousness
  • anxiety
  • frequent crying
  • unhappiness
  • feeling of impotence
  • being ready to agitate or feel upset

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Difficulties to think clearly
  • problems in decision-making
  • distraction
  • constant concern
  • loss of sense of humor
  • lack of creativity

Psychological stress and disorders

Stress is related to psychological disorders:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • acute stress disorder
  • psychosomatic disorders
  • depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety disorders
  • sexual disorders
  • eating disorders

Stress and mood disorders

Mood disorders include depression and bipolar disorder.

Recurrent depression occurs in about 8% of the population. And bipolar disorder, which is characterized by both recurrent depression and hypomanic/manic episodes. Occurs in about 1% of the population.

Sufferers live with manic or depressive symptoms about 50% of the time. With a marked decrease in quality of life and a life expectancy of 10-15 years lower than that of the general population. Due to a higher prevalence of suicide and cardiovascular mortality.

Stress is one of many risk factors for depression and also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Also, stress causes an increase in the activity of the hormonal system that regulates the secretion of cortisol. Hypercortisolism is common in patients with depression.

Some examples show that high levels of stress can lead to long-term hypocortisolism at the other end of the spectrum.

Recurrent depression and / or manic episodes, causing a high accumulation of stress over time. Can deplete the hormonal system.

Acute stress disorder

Following a very stressful experience, it is possible for the individual to develop an acute stress disorder.

This disease emerges during the traumatic experience and the first month after the event.

Symptoms include dissociation, avoidance, elevated arousal, difficulty concentrating. It can also be predictive of post-traumatic stress disorders.

Acute stress disorder (ASD) was introduced into the MSF-IV. To give visibility to the situation of severe suffering experienced during a traumatic experience.

Which can subsequently give rise to post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).

The DSM-5 is defined by some unique criteria, including (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • Exposure to a life-threatening situation or physical integrity (this also includes sexual dimension) for yourself or others).
  • The possible appearance of intrusive thoughts or dissociations.
  • Impossible to experience positive emotions.
  • Avoidance symptoms, both cognitive and behavioral.
  • Irritability, impaired concentration, or hyperalertness.

Acute stress disorder differs from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the severity, not due to a common stress disorder.

Because of their appearance: the disorder includes both the traumatic experience and the symptoms experienced within 1 month of the trauma.

Dissociative symptoms such as

  • derealization
  • depersonalization
  • dissociative amnesia is also present during the traumatic event.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Suppose the Stress Acute Disorder defines a constellation of symptoms within one month of the traumatic event.

In that case, the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is made for symptoms related to the traumatic event. But arising or protracted beyond the first-month threshold.

Its duration can vary from one month to chronicity.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is manifested as a result of an extreme traumatic factor: 

  • In which the person has lived
  • witnessed
  • has experienced an event or events that have involved death
  • threat of death
  • serious injury
  • or a threat to the physical integrity of himself or others, 
  • such as personal aggression
  • disasters
  • wars and fighting
  • kidnappings
  • torture
  • accidents
  • diseases

The person’s response includes:

  • intense fear
  • feelings of helplessnesS
  • or horror
  • The traumatic event is persistently engraved
  • with recurrent and intrusive unpleasant memories,
  • which include image
  • thoughts
  • or perceptions
  • nightmares and unpleasant dreams
  • acting or feeling as if the traumatic event was recurring
  • intense psychological distress at the exposure to internal or external triggers that symbolize or resemble any aspect of the traumatic event
  • physiological reactivity or exposure to internal or external triggers that symbolize or resemble some part of the traumatic event
  • persistent avoidance of the stimuli associated with trauma and alleviation of the general reactivity
  • difficulty in sleeping or keeping the sleep
  • irritability or outbreaks of anger
  • difficulty in concentrating
  • hyperalertness and exaggerated alarm responses

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: how to treat?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is part of Anxiety Disorders. A diagnostic category for which cognitive behavioral therapy has developed practical approaches.

Given the disabling nature that the disease can take, it is essential to take action once recognized.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to help the subject identify and control negative thoughts. And beliefs and identify the logical errors contained in convictions.

The most functional and advantageous thinking and behavior alternatives about the traumatic event experienced.

Some techniques to use are:

  • the exposure
  • re-labeling of somatic sensations
  • abdominal relaxation and breathing
  • cognitive restructuring
  • EMDR.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is very effective immediately after the trauma. Both to manage the symptoms of Stress Acute Disorder and prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders.

Specifically, the treatment can be done through psychoeducation. Raising awareness of his pattern and dysfunctional responses (Apple, 2014).

Management of anxiety and cognitive restructuring to work instead on the heart beliefs (Bryant, 2003).

The focus on maintenance mechanisms helps the individual supplement the trauma and avoid the emergence of PTSD. Approval by Bryant et al.’s study of 1998.

Other Studies

The effects are visible not only here and now but also after 6 months. Which suggests a change that stops at the symptom and already goes at least at the level of intermediate beliefs.

In addition to a lower PTSD emergency, there is also a minor appearance of avoidance symptoms.

Thus, functional improvement also counteracts ASD and its later pathological evolution (Bryant et al., 2002).

The Prolonged Exposure Protocol was developed by Edna Foa and his group a few years ago (Foa et al., 2007). And is among the most manufactured procedures EMDR.

And Cognitive Therapy (PCT) present in efficacy and trial trials (NovoNavarro et al., 2016).

The theory behind the concept of the Prolonged Exposure Treatment. From the 80s to anxiety disorders with the name of Theory of Emotional Processing (Foa et al., 1986).

It only later was it applied to post-traumatic stress disorder (Foa et al., 1989).

The Prolonged Exposure Protocol for PTSD provides for 10 to 14 90-minute sessions each and presents as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. And not for trauma therapy in general.

The movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR.) has also produced excellent results.

This technique involves the recall by the patient of traumatic memories simultaneously as the horizontal movement of the eyes, which follow a moving stimulus (e.g., the fingers of the therapist) (Shapiro, 2001).

Stress and Mindfulness

Even in the absence of a true Stress Disorder, the frenzy of our daily lives can put a strain on psychophysical well-being. How can we handle it? One answer is: practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment in a curious and non-judgmental way (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).

Daughter of an ancient tradition that has its roots in Eastern culture and Buddhist tradition, mindfulness has arrived in the West thanks to the work of Kabat-Zinn since the late 1970s.

Kabat-Zinn believed that meditation had the power to transform the individual experience of suffering and stress on a lasting basis.

Offering an alternative to strategies for solving problems deeply rooted in Western culture.

The theoretical horizon in which it is essential to frame Kabat-Zinn’s insights and research.

The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program’s development and the Stress Clinic’s foundation is that of mind-body medicine.

The relationship between mind and body, between thoughts and health, is an essential prerequisite for understanding the nature and purpose of this program.

Work stress

According to a definition from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

work-related stress can be defined as a group of harmful physical and emotional reactions when the work demands are not commensurate with the worker’s skills, resources, or needs.

Much of the stress of our daily lives comes from our work.

The increasing pace and pressing demands of companies and the growing tendency to identify with their work often lead to a large investment of resources.

Prolonged time can seriously affect our well-being. Several mental illnesses, such as stress, anxiety, and panic, can result from an unhealthy work environment and compromise individual resources.

For this reason, people who work in Human Resources are now called more than ever to encourage the spread of organizational well-being, motivate and prevent feelings of frustration.


Excessive and long-term demands in the workplace can lead to “burn-out syndrome,” a natural form of exhaustion resulting from the nature of specific professional tasks.

The term “burn-out” comes from English and literally means being burned, exhausted, burnt-out.

The term has been borrowed from the world of sport, where it is used to indicate an athlete who, after various successes and despite the perfect physical fitness, can no longer achieve good results.

The burn-out syndrome is a professional disease, and sufferers can be called a “burn-out” from overwork.

The burn-out sufferer exhibits nervousness, insomnia, depression, a sense of failure, low self-esteem, indifference, isolation, anger, and resentment.

Teachers appear to be a category of workers particularly affected by burn-out.

It seems that, in addition to some individual risk factors, such as excessive sacrifice, personal and family problems. And a lack of stress tolerance, there is a role for teachers in organizational shortages.

We think of the significant classes, the need for equipment, excessive bureaucratic procedures, the lack of opportunities for training, limited career opportunities, poor pay, and precariousness.

It seems that women are protective factors, such as their gender, seniority, colleagues’ support, and recognition of their work by superiors and users.

The burn-out requires prompt treatment and the best help a burn-out person can expect is psychological care.


Cognitive-behavioral treatment aims to change this way of thinking to reduce the intensity of negative emotions and create a serene and productive atmosphere within the work environment.

Meditation, especially mindfulness, is a widely used practice to counter the effects of frustrating thoughts and emotions.

Learning to welcome the present in a non-judgmental way is a helpful tool for defending oneself against the risk of burn-out.

To manage relations more effectively and less stressful, it may also be useful to learn assertiveness techniques.

Finally, support groups among people with similar difficulties are a valuable resource to face a stressful working environment.

One of the most insidious sources of stress is harassment.

“To the mob” means to assault, assault tumultuously.

The term, borrowed from ethnological science, describes the behavior of a pack that assails a single.

At the workplace, harassment can be defined as that set of gradual and systematic behaviors that aim at the marginalization and destruction of a worker.

Exposure to harassment has been classified as a source of social stress at work and the most paralyzing and devastating problem for workers compared to all the other labor-related stressors combined.

Stress: conclusions

Stress is a natural psychophysical response and can benefit activating resources and guiding us to solve problems. 

However, there are many sources of stress in our daily lives.

Excessive activation by the intensity and prolonged time can compromise our well-being.

Learning to recognize stress is essential, and learning some strategies allows us to step back and not be overwhelmed by what happens, for example, by practicing mindfulness.

When stress is extreme, it can lead to diseases such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has several tools with proven efficacy to treat these disorders, which are often very disabling.

Finally, special attention deserves the working environment. The frantic rhythms we are subjected to can lead to the burn-out syndrome, and exposure to mobbing frequently causes an intense stress reaction in the worker. 

Taking treatment is essential to eliminate the symptoms and give the individual the chance to access their resources and recover from their well-being.

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