What Are The Three Stages Of Stress And How To Cope
By Julia Thomas
Updated June 12, 2019
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Are you struggling with excessive stress? Are you finding yourself unable to cope? If you are, this article may provide some useful information for you. We will be exploring the existence of stress and the three stages of stress as well as giving you helpful tips for handling and relieving stress in a healthy way.
STRESS IS A COMMON EXPERIENCE in life and people handle stress differently, some managing it and some actually recreating it. The chart below demonstrates this Distribution of Stress across different people in society. Most people seem to be able to cope with basic stress, as the bell curve demonstrates below in orange. Approximately, an equal number of people respond by passing a little of their stress on to others as seen in green. A smaller number of people on the right end of the bell curve represent those who simply cause stress for others and don't cope at all. On the other left end of the curve are those who can't cope well. Those who have "difficulty coping" or who are major "stress givers" are those that need to take special actions to heal or even get professional help. If left untreated, people in these categories can experience escalating stress reactions, chronic illness, and debilitating conditions.
IN GENERAL, however, basic stress for all participants in the above curve has have been found to move through THREE BASIC STAGES with regard to the body's responses. Understanding these three stages can be helpful in effectively coping. These three stages are; Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. The degree or intensity a person experiences in each of these stages depends upon the individual's personality, health, and support system.
The first stage of stress is your body's immediate reaction as it attempts to get ready to react. The stress response can be caused by many different situations and each person has different levels of toleration and sensitivity. Typically, your body's initial stress response may be strong as it works to fight the stressor. You may notice an increased heart rate, sudden sweating, nervous fidgeting, feeling tense, anxious, worried, or even scared as your body reacts to the cause of your stress. The sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and biological changes occur to make you poised to take action. This reaction is part of our innate tendency towards a "fight or flight" response, which results in a burst of adrenaline through our system.
The second stage of the stress response is when our bodies attempt to return to a normal balance, counteracting the "alarm" response in the first stage. Generally, when you enter into this stage you will begin to feel calmer. The parasympathetic nervous system begins to bring down the heart rate and your body's physiological functions return to normal, and you can better focus on attending to the source of the stress. In this phase, however, you may think you can handle more stress or get the impression that you are no longer needing to address the cause of the stress because the sense of urgency is reduced. If the cause persists, however, the body can begin to suffer. Fatigue, sleep disturbances, irritability, poor concentration, chronic anxiety, and other issues can begin to develop because the body is essentially still on alert without the alarm bells ringing.
The final stress stage is exhaustion, which results from your body trying to combat stress for an extended period of time. Typically, in this stage you find yourself feeling run down and with far less energy than normal. You may fall ill easier as your immune system can also weaken due to stress. This stage is a signal that your stress is severe and most likely chronic or long-term. You may find your physical health suffering and chronic health conditions can develop. Long term psychological changes can occur as well, causing the person to become depressed, possibly sleep deprived, or chronically anxious.
If you feel you are experiencing excessive stress and that you are unable to successfully cope with this stress in your day-to-day life there are things you can do to help yourself.
- First, take a moment to be aware of the signs of stress that you are experiencing and accept that you are unable to handle this stress without some other means of intervention. Accept the fact that you need to take time to take care of your mind and body. Notice if you are feeling tense, anxious, irritable or worried. Are some of your behaviors changing such as eating habits or alcohol consumption, or work performance. Also, make an assessment of your physical health, perhaps even getting a physical exam if needed.
- Attempt positive thinking - You might feel like it won't help, but continually making an effort to have positive thoughts about some aspects of your experience can change your attitude and make whatever you're stressed about appear less daunting. Along with attitude changes, you may want to consider if you are being too self-critical or your values are too high to achieve. You may find it helpful to reassess your goals and work-life balance or reconsider your belief system regarding sources of stress. Also, try to be gentle with yourself and avoid critical self-talk.
- Simple relaxation techniques can help you calm down and moderate the stress effect. These include taking some slow deep breaths whenever needed while focusing on how your body feels. Try going for a walk while focusing on what you see and how your feet feel on the ground rather than what you are thinking. Watch a TV show you enjoy or listen to soothing music. Give or receive a hug from a loved one. Try a relaxation video or audiotape or read a book about stress management to develop new techniques that seem right for you.
- Improve your sleep health by keeping a regular sleep pattern whenever possible. Create a bedtime ritual to help you settle down and relax prior to bed. Avoid blue light an hour before bedtime and leave the phone away from the bedside when possible. Avoid caffeine after noon and try a sleep-inducing tea before bedtime, such as chamomile.
- Distract yourself - If what you're stressed about is out of your control attempting to distract yourself can be an effective way of coping. Try meeting up with a friend, starting a new hobby, getting some work done around the house, or volunteering for a local cause. Sometimes focusing on work, helps to take your mind off of the stressful condition.