The STRESS Process – How We Create Anxiety and Stress

The S.T.R.E.S.S process is a chain reaction that starts with a stimulus and ends in the symptoms we commonly refer to as ‘stress’. The process comprises the following stages:

S = Stimulus

The STRESS process is initiated by a stimulus or trigger either from the environment around us (a person, thing, situation) or from within us (a sensation, feeling or thought). The stimulus is relayed to the thalamus, an area in the fore-brain, which acts like a switchboard sending the data simultaneously to the amygdala (located in limbic system – the emotional centre of the brain) and the neocortex (the thinking brain).

T= Threat

The stimulus arrives at the amygdala before it reaches the thinking brain. Our emotional brain checks to see whether the stimulus represents an immediate or imminent danger. If the answer is yes, step 3 in the process is skipped because our survival may well depend on us “acting now and thinking later.”

R = Reality creation

Our brain is a virtual reality generator. We don’t experience the world objectively, only through our own subjective perception of it. Within our brain is the perceptual framework within which our entire experience of the world is constructed. We are not passive experiencers of the world; rather we are the creators of the world we experience.

A moment after reaching the amygdala the stimulus arrives at the thinking brain. Our thinking brain sets about interpreting what the stimulus means. Was the emotional brain correct and we’re facing a real danger or did it overreact or make the wrong assessment? Based on our thinking brain’s perception of the stimuli, it could confirm the stimuli as a threat or either tone down or switch off the emotional brain’s alarm.

E = Emotion

The fourth step in the S.T.R.E.S.S. Process is emotional arousal. The two emotions that can be aroused by real or perceived danger are fear and anxiety.

Fear is believed to be the oldest and strongest of emotions. It has ensured our survival as a species.

Anxiety is aroused in response to a perceived future danger. It causes us to behave with caution when approaching potentially dangerous situations or situations with uncertain outcomes. We respond with apprehension, nervousness or dread and react by preparing, planning and practicing so we can mitigate the risk inherent in the potentially dangerous situation.

S = Stress Response

In response to fear or anxiety the stress response is automatically activated. During the stress response hormones and neurotransmitters, like adrenalin and cortisol are released. These hormones and neurotransmitters prepare our body for physical action – to combat (fight) or escape from (flight) the real or perceived threat. As a result, our heart pounds, our muscles tense, and we are suddenly on high alert.

Stress = Stress Symptoms

The final step in the stress process is Stress. ‘Stress’ is the label we commonly use to describe the cocktail of brain – mind – body changes we experience as a result of activating the stress response. This cocktail comprises the following changes:

– cognitive (the way think),

– emotional (the way we feel and our moods),

– physiological (the way our body changes)

– behavioural (the way we behave)

The way we mix our stress cocktail is unique to each of us, and as a result, we all experience stress differently. However, our stress cocktail comes in two broad flavours:

1. Acute stress – the stress that we experience in response to a real and present danger. Once the danger has passed the stress response is switched off and our body returns to it’s normal balanced state.

2. Chronic stress – the name given to the prolonged and on-going activation of the stress response. Chronic stress can disrupt almost all our body’s processes. Research suggests that chronic stress underlies many of the illnesses and diseases that are overwhelming our health system and destroying the quality of middle and late life.

Knowledge is Power

I trust you’ve found this explanation of how our brain – mind – body performs the S.T.R.E.S.S process useful. I’ve found that gaining this understanding provides people with more choices about how they can change their experience of stress. For example someone who has only been focusing on easing their stress symptoms could choose to take action to avoid or change the stimuli that have been triggering their stress process.