The Causes and Effects of Stress – part 1

Stress and Relationships

We all experience stress; we cannot avoid it. Because of this daily contact with stress, we all have a vague idea of what it is and what it can do to our physical and mental health. And of course, stress puts a massive strain on relationships. The number of marriages and long term relationships that split up during the covid pandemic was very high: But if you were asked to define stress, what would you say? Mental strain caused by the demands of life and work?

Video – the definition of stress

That would be a typical answer, but it does not reveal why a stressed executive develops an ulcer, nor does it explain why stress causes depression in one man and an ulcer or heart attack in another, nor does it suggest that stress can be a result of either boredom and inactivity or overwork. And so, a comprehensive definition of stress will set the scene for a better understanding of the problem, whether within relationships or without. This is it:

Stress is the reaction in an individual’s body or mind when that person perceives a potential threat to his emotional or physical well-being.

Perception is everything

An event or situation is only stressful if you perceive it (that is, interpret it in your mind) as threatening. For example, if you were confronted in a dark street late at night by a man obviously intent on robbing you, your reaction would depend on how well you believed you could cope.

If you were confident of your ability to defend yourself, you would remain much calmer than someone who expected to lose a fight. 

However, as our definition of stress makes clear, the same principle applies to any experience which might affect your emotional well-being (i.e. your happiness, sense of security, self-esteem and so forth). So, for example, being criticized by someone is particularly stressful if you depend on that person’s approval to maintain your own self-esteem.

Similarly, the break-up of a relationship is far more stressful when your emotional security depends on the relationship than when you are emotionally self-reliant.

Stress and relationship break up

So, really, there is no situation which, in itself, is stressful; even very dangerous situations only evoke a reaction if a person sees them as potentially harmful.

You can see that this is true if you consider a young child playing on the edge of a busy road. Although he is in grave danger, he may well be quite unaware of the fact, probably feels quite happy, and only when he has been taught that roads and cars are dangerous will he perceive the threat to himself and react in some way.

This view of stress emphasizes that a stress response is made up of different parts: the event, situation or environment in which a person finds himself, his appraisal of whether it is threatening or potentially harmful; and, lastly, his physical or emotional reaction to it. This reaction may be either a conscious action – such as leaving the stress situation – or a subconscious reaction.

(The conscious part of your mind is the part with which you think and observe the world; it is made up of everything in your mind of which you are aware while awake. The subconscious, by contrast, is outside conscious awareness, but nevertheless works 24 hours a day to control memory, thinking and sensory processes, and basic body systems such as breathing and digestion.)

A person’s appraisal of a situation also involves subconscious as well as conscious processes. And so he or she may experience the symptoms of stress without knowing why. A simple example at this point will illustrate the idea. Consider a man who is stressed by his job but does not consciously realize that this is the cause of, say, his irritability.

The problem may have begun with a conscious thought (I hate this job!) which was then suppressed because it was unacceptable (But I can’t leave it because my family needs the security of my employment).

However, suppression of a thought from the conscious mind does not make it go away: it remains in the subconscious and produces a stress reaction of one sort or another. This is basically what we could call the shadow side of the mind. It’s a term which refers to any repressed material that we suppress out of consciousness.

The pain of a break up is often all too obvious; the longer term pain may be suppressed and not felt if we do not deal with it, perhaps through counselling or therapy.

One way to deal with this kind of pain is to find something that makes you feel better. Time with friends, distracting pastimes, alternative therapy, such as Reiki healing or reflexology, exercise, and so on. And of course you can always seek counselling.

Video – counselling after a relationship break up

The effects and cost of stress

1 Subjective effects

Anxiety, aggression, apathy, boredom, depression, fatigue, frustration, guilt and shame, irritability and bad temper, moodiness, low self-esteem, threat and tension, nervousness, and loneliness.

2 Behavioral effects

Accident proneness, drug taking, emotional outbursts, excessive eating or loss of appetite, excessive drinking and smoking, excitability, impulsive behavior, impaired speech, nervous laughter, restlessness, and trembling.

3 Cognitive effects

Inability to make decisions and concentrate, frequent forgetfulness, hypersensitivity to criticism, and mental blocks.

4 Physiological effects

Increased blood and urine catecholamines and cortisol, increased blood glucose levels, increased heart rate and blood pressure, dryness of mouth, sweating, dilation of pupils, difficulty breathing, hot and cold spells, ‘a lump in the throat’, numbness and tingling in part of the limbs.

5 Health effects

Asthma, amenorrhea, chest and back pains, coronary heart disease, diarrhea, faintness and dizziness, dyspepsia, frequent urination, headaches and migraine, neuroses, nightmares, insomnia, psychoses, psychosomatic disorder, diabetes mellitus, skin rash, ulcers, loss of sexual interest, and weakness.

6 Organizational effects

Absenteeism, poor industrial relations and poor productivity, high accident and poor labor turnover rates, poor organizational climate, antagonism at work, and job dissatisfaction.

7 Sexual Effects

This website does not explicitly deal with the effects of stress on sexual relationships, because this is an extremely complex aspect of the subject. But, in short, stress can cause low sex drive, erectile failure, premature ejaculation, and anorgasmia in men and women.

8 Lack Of Control

To take control of your life you must have some direction or aim, some vision or purpose. It is that which motivates us to try harder, to strive for success, and ultimately pursue our heart’s desire. Some of the men and women with whom I work have found deep emotional work helpful in finding their direction. Emotional process work is something that can help you explore and remedy dysfunctional behaviour and emotional problems. 

Alternatively, you could try an alternative therapy such as Reiki or learn to use Reiki in your life as a tool for stress reduction. See Reiki training in Frome, Somerset, and Bath for more information. The point is this: for emotional problems caused by stress, and especially by the break up of your relationship, it can be helpful to consult a qualified counselor, alternative therapy practitioner, or even your doctor.