Today, I will discuss the chain of reactions that start from an external stressor event and the two moments in which we can intervene to increase our resilience. In the end, you have a self-assessment questionnaire of resources to cope with stress.
The Stress Chain: Stressor Event → Cognitive Evaluation → Emotional Integration → Neurological Activation Mechanisms → Physiological Stress Response → Activation of a Target Organ → Coping? ↗ No → Dysfunction, Illness ↘ Yes → Attenuation, Activation
I Interpreting Reality: We have a stressful event that we interpret cognitively and emotionally integrate; we think and feel something about what happened. Typically, we accept our thoughts and feelings without reflection or questioning. This often sets off a chain of negative events.
Example: I have a minor car accident. In my mind, I say something like “That’s just how you are, always careless” or “This is what happens when you’re not attentive” or “Today is one of those days” or “Why do these things always happen to me?” This is the cognitive interpretation of reality. Emotionally, I might feel fear, anger, or aggression, disappointment in myself, discouragement, or injustice. This is the emotional integration of reality.
In most cases, no one stops to ask why they think this way, if these thoughts are helpful or harmful, or if there’s any logical basis for the interpretation. We continue with our thoughts and repeat the story in our minds, maybe even to colleagues or our partner several times throughout the day. The result? We reinforce false and illogical beliefs and strengthen our negative emotional response. We have a bad day and set ourselves up for more bad days in the future.
What can be done differently? Alone or in therapy, we can work on:
- Restructuring harmful beliefs
- Reinterpreting the situation
- Developing better problem-solving skills
- Strategies to avoid or minimize exposure to stressors
- Increasing self-confidence and coping abilities
- Creating healthy channels for expressing stress responses
- Learning relationship, communication, and negotiation techniques to enhance a sense of competence.
II From Mind to Body: The next link is between emotion and the body’s reaction. At this point, the way we interpreted what happened becomes a physiological reaction on three levels: neurological, neuroendocrine, and endocrine. If coping mechanisms fail to regulate this reaction, it can lead to the activation of an organ and the development of psychosomatic reactions or illnesses, usually affecting the weakest or predisposed organ.
What can we do here? Introduce regular practices to reduce the physiological stress response. This is preventive work, not just crisis intervention. We need to condition/teach our bodies to relax on command so that it is generally relaxed and responds quickly when asked to relax.
Techniques to reduce physiological stress response:
- Breathing exercises
III Self-assessment Questionnaire: Answer the following questions:
- Do you feel supported by your family when experiencing a stressful event? +10 points
- Do you actively engage in a hobby? +10 points
- Are you part of a social or activity group that meets at least once a month? +10 points
- Is your weight within a normal range (+/- 3 kg) proportional to height and bone structure? +15 points
- Do you practice a form of deep relaxation (e.g., meditation, visualization, muscle relaxation) at least three times a week? +15 points
- Do you engage in 30 minutes of physical activity at least three times a week? +5 points/day
- How many healthy and balanced meals do you consume in a day? +5 points/meal
- How often each week do you do something purely for your own pleasure? +5 points/time
- Do you have a space in your home where you can retreat to relax or be alone? +10 points
- Do you practice a time management technique in your daily life? +10 points
- How many cigarettes do you smoke on an average day? -10 points/pack
- How often during a typical week do you take something to help you sleep at night (pills, alcohol, any sleep aid)? -5 points/night
- How often during a typical week do you take something during the day to help with anxiety or calmness (pills or alcohol)? -10 points/day
- How often during a typical week do you take work home that should have been done at the workplace? -5 points/night
A perfect score would be 115. A score between 50-60 probably allows you to cope with ordinary stress. Points 1-10 are adaptive coping methods, and points 11-14 are maladaptive coping methods.
Bibliography: A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of Human Stress Response, George S. Everly, Jeffrey M. Lating, 3rd ed., Springer, 2013.