The first task is to recognize what stress (or fear or anxiety) is--to become aware if and when you have it. Ask yourself these questions: Are you often tense, uptight, and unable to relax? Do setbacks disturb you a lot? Do you overlook the small pleasures in life? Do you fret and worry a lot? Do you have many self-doubts and self-criticism? Does your anger flare up more than it used to? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you feel tired or experience pain? Are you under pressure and/or restless? Answering "yes" to any one of these questions may mean you are over-stressed. Answering "yes" to 5 or 6 of these 9 questions may double your risk of developing high blood pressure.
A brief list of signs would include:
- Psychophysiological responses--muscles tight or aching, nervous tics like in the eyelid, hands unsteady, restlessness, touching yourself repeatedly, clearing your throat, frequent colds, pain, upset stomach, sweating, skin problem or itch, stiff posture, holding things tightly, strong startle response, headaches, high blood pressure, ulcers, heart disease, colitis, hemorrhoids, rashes, diarrhea, or frequent urination. These are somatoform disorders.
- Behavioral-emotional signs--hyperactivity, walking or talking faster, in a hurry, irritation with delays, panicky, blushing, getting tongue-tangled, avoiding people, nervous habits (strumming fingers, eating, smoking, drinking), changing habits (becoming less or more organized), poor memory, confusion, stumbling over words, inattentiveness, excessive worrying, preoccupation with a certain situation, holding a grudge, irritability, crying, obsessive thoughts, compulsive actions, outbursts of emotions, bad dreams, apathy, etc. These are anxiety reactions.
- Tiredness and lack of energy--general lack of interest, bored, watching TV and falling asleep, humorless, sleeping a lot, insomnia, can't get going, sighing, and moving slowly. (Or, sometimes, too much energy, as mentioned above.)
- Anxiety intrudes on our consciousness or cognition in many ways: excessive preoccupation with the threatening person or situation, a desperate striving to understand why someone behaved the way they did, repeatedly obsessing about the upsetting event, unstoppable pangs of emotion (loss, anger, jealousy, guilt, longing, etc.), excessive vigilance and startle reactions, insomnia and bad dreams, aches and pains and other unwanted sensations. Plus all the words mentioned above in the introduction that reflect the subjective feelings we have, including nervous, up tight, scared, apprehensive, etc.
Naturally, no one has all these signs. Having only a few may mean nothing; yet, having only one to an extreme may be a sign of serious stress. You probably have a pretty good idea about how anxious you are; if not, discuss it with someone. There are over 100 personality tests of stress, anxiety, fears, self-doubt, risk-taking, etc., which could help you assess your emotional dis-ease (Aero & Weiner, 1981). Chapter 15 provides a journal approach to discovering your unique sources of stress. One of the best known tests of stress is the Type A Personality Test from Friedman and Rosenman (1974) which asks how often you experience racing against the clock, hating to be late, hating to wait, losing your temper when pressured, irritated by other's mistakes, speaking in a loud critical voice, being competitive, rushing to do something quickly, feeling guilty if not working, etc. How often do you do these things? If a lot, you are likely to be a tense, competitive, ambitious, irritable Type A.
Because stress and anxiety are complex reactions (including feelings, actions, thoughts, and physiology), these emotional states can and have been measured many ways: self-ratings, observation by others, psychological tests, behavioral signs, and physiological or medical tests. The trouble is (1) each person has their own unique way of responding to stress, i.e. heart rate may increase but no stomach distress may occur in one person and the opposite pattern in another person equally stressed. (2) There is very little agreement among these measures, e.g. a person may rate him/herself as anxious but not appear anxious to others nor respond with stress on the physiological measures, like GSR (perspiration), blood pressure, or muscle tension. This is a major problem in studying stress scientifically. (3) The concepts of stress and anxiety are so broad and vague that general measures of anxiety do not predict very well how people behave or feel nor do such measures explain psychological problems or help a therapist develop a treatment plan. Being "anxious" roughly means "I'm having some problems" but more specifics must be known to diagnose and correct a particular disturbance. You may need to go deeper and find out exactly what is causing your stress. There are many possible causes which you need to know about before deciding what causes your anxiety.
Stressors--the External Situations that Lead to Stress
Changes cause stress
Almost any change in our lives is a stressor because there is a demand on us to deal with a new situation. This is Hans Selye's view, who has spent a life-time studying stress (1982). There are thousands of external causes of stress. Moreover, we can be overstressed when there are too many demands at school or work or interpersonally, and we can be understressed when there is "nothing to do" and we feel like we aren't getting anywhere. As mentioned before, there are bad stresses and good stresses. Here are some bad stresses (the percentages estimate the difficulty in managing that particular stress relative to death of a spouse, which is 100%): a spouse dies (100%), we get divorced (73%), have a serious illness (53%), we lose our job (47%), change occupations (36%), have more arguments with our spouse (35%), and so on. These are good stresses: when we fall in love and get married (50%), reconciliate after a separation (45%), retire (45%), have a baby (39%), buy a house (31%), get promoted (29%), have an unusual success (28%), graduate (26%), find new friends (18%), and take a vacation (13%). The more of these major life changes--good and bad--that have occurred in your life during the last year or two, the greater the chances of your becoming physically or emotionally ill (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). Other researchers have found that having just one close, confiding relationship protects us from many of these stresses.
Alvin Toffler (1970) wrote a best seller, Future Shock, putting forth the idea that technology was producing such rapid change that people felt unable to keep up with and handle the accelerating flow of information and choices. We are in a mobile society with few permanent relationships. Today almost everything is disposable, even our jobs and friends. We give them up and move on. Certainly, computers, robots, and cheap foreign labor may threaten our jobs. On the other hand, I would suggest that an equal amount of stress or frustration is caused by changes being made too slowly rather than too fast, i.e. racial prejudice and greed don't go away fast enough, we'd like to make some changes at work but can't, or the slow driver in front of us drives us crazy--see frustration and conflict below.
Siegelman (1983) and others speculate that change is upsetting because we are leaving a part of our selves behind. Any change involves a loss of the known--a giving up of a reality that has given meaning to our lives. We are also afraid we won't get the things we want after the change is made. No wonder changes are resisted. Siegelman and others also believe that there is an opposite force to the resistance to change. Of course, many of us seek change; there is an urge to master new challenges, to explore the unknown, to test ourselves. And she says, "mastering the anxiety of venturing promotes new levels of growth." How do you see yourself? As wanting things to stay comfortable and the same or more as wanting things to change? This is probably an important personal characteristic to be aware of and to consider if you need to change this attitude.
Daily hassles cause stress
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) believe the little daily hassles rather than the major life events bother us the most, causing mental and physical problems. The research at the University of California at Berkeley investigated the hassles of college students, middle-aged whites, and health professionals. Each group had some similar hassles: losing things, concern about physical appearance, and too many things to do. But each group had different concerns too: middle-aged persons worried about chronic money matters, professionals fretted about continuing pressures at work, and students were stressed by wasting time, not doing as well as they would like, and loneliness. Note, these are not major life changes, but chronic conditions.
Stress may come from constant, steady tension in a relationship, continuing lack of friends, no interest or excitement day after day, or inability to find meaning in life, as well as from the big, awful eruptions in life discussed above. Also, the little unexpected occurrences and disruptions, like a flat tire, an uninvited visitor, a headache, a long form to be filled out, etc. cause stress too. Lazarus's little hassles were found to be more related to physical health than Holmes and Rahe's major life events. So, both big and little events create stress; you need to be aware of both. And, in fact, as Lazarus points out, health can better be viewed as a result of effective or ineffective coping rather than as simply a result of stress in the environment. You may not be able to avoid stress, but you can learn to cope.