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The Phases of Stress

What is stress?

Life stressors involve changes in your environment that your central nervous system must adapt to during the course of daily living. Stressors include either positive or negative life events (e.g., death, divorce, new job, new house, new baby) that require you to adapt to these changes in your life. Stress results when pressures, challenges, or demands in life exceed your coping abilities. Stress can manifest itself in physical, emotional, or behavioral symptoms.

Phases of the stress experience

There are three basic phases of the stress experience. Understanding these phases can help you to identify and cope with the stress in your life.

Phase I

Stressors trigger your body's response to stress. This physiological response is also known as the "fight or flight" response in your nervous system. Symptoms include:

  • Increase in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Decreased blood flow to the extremities
  • Slowed digestion

The stress response is meant temporarily to improve your chances of surviving a physical threat to your safety (i.e., outrunning a predator), but becomes dangerous to your health if activated for prolonged periods of time.

Troublesome events that can activate the stress experience include death, divorce, illness, conflict, job loss, and retirement. Other negative stressors are worries, memories, or images that are produced internally by our minds. Positive life events also trigger the stress response in our bodies. These include marriage, birth of a child, purchase of a new home, or starting a new job.

Phase II

Interpretation of stressors affects our ability to cope with stress. Our beliefs, attitudes, and values determine how we interpret and react to potentially stressful situations. If we tend to see those situations as threats, pressures, demands, or catastrophes, we compromise our ability to cope. The resulting feeling of helplessness sets us up for a variety of unpleasant responses to stress.

Phase III

Reaction to stress might create or worsen physical, emotional, or behavioral symptoms if the fight or flight response is activated chronically over time.

  • Physical — high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, strokes, rashes, migraine, tension headaches, infertility, irritable bowel
  • Emotional — anxiety, depression, anger, forgetfulness, panic attacks
  • Behavioral — overeating, poor appetite, drug abuse, excessive smoking, irritability, social withdrawal, insomnia

What to do about stress


Phase I

There are several things that you can do to decrease the impact of stressors in your life. Problem-solving prevents the recurrence of a stressful experience. Managing your time better reduces stress by creating a balance between difficult and pleasurable experiences.

Phase II

It is important to become aware of your thoughts and attitudes when you feel stressed. Once you are aware of the stressful slant you are placing on the situation, you are able to develop ways to re-evaluate those situations in ways that make them less threatening and more manageable.

Phase III

Relaxation techniques, exercise, leisure, and nutritional awareness all play a part in improving your physical, behavioral, and emotional response to stress. By increasing your physical resistance to stress and learning how to relax yourself, you can reduce your vulnerability to stressful events. Developing a network of social supports and adopting good self-care habits serve as buffers against the inevitable stresses of daily living.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/13/2008...#5274