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Understanding the psychology of stress

Stress, Stress, STRESS..

Stress has been turned into such a modern-day enemy that even the word ‘stress’ sounds stressful. Still, there are some who say that it is your friend, in that it spurs you into action. Who’s right and who’s wrong is not my area of concern. I’m more concerned with illustrating the mechanics of stress- what causes it and how it works.

I just want to lay down facts before you and then it’s totally up to you what you make of them.

You can understand stress by viewing it from two perspectives…

Stress- the fight and flight response

This is the perspective of stress most people are familiar with and comes to their mind whenever they hear the word ‘stress’. When we encounter a threat, real or perceived, our body generates a fight-or-flight stress response. The purpose of this response is to enable us to deal with the situation at hand.

Our body gets prepared for emergency action, the heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, breath quickens and our senses become sharper.

These physiological changes increase our strength and energy, speed up our reaction time and enhance our focus preparing us to fight or flee from the danger at hand. Yes, in this case, stress is helpful because under normal physiological conditions we’d be quite ill-prepared to deal with this kind of situation.

Now, this stress response becomes an enemy when it gets triggered in unwanted situations that aren't really harmful but we perceive them to be so (irrational fears). Also, this stress response creates problems when it gets triggered for long periods of time. It is not our natural physiological state and therefore it takes its toll on our health when we are forced to remain in this state longer than necessary.

Stress- the overburdened mind

This one's a more important perspective of stress because the stress that we commonly experience in our day-to-day life can be understood in the light of this perspective.

Your conscious mind is essentially an information-processing system. It receives data from the environment and processes it. Now there’s a limit to its processing power. When it processes more data than it can handle, it sends you the emotion of stress asking you to relax and stop receiving more data.

Unlike the unconscious mind which can handle many tasks at once- like breathing, digestion and driving at the same time, the conscious mind can only handle one task at a time. (conscious and the subconscious mind)

stressed at computer
More than one information to process at any given time causes stress

Let’s say you are preparing for a very difficult exam. Your mind is fully engrossed with the difficult subject that you are studying. Your mind is processing only the information in your book. Suddenly, your Mom calls you and asks you to buy some grocery. At this point, you get stressed because your mind is now not only processing the info in your books but it is also thinking about going to the grocery.

Then your neighbor suddenly increases the volume of his TV. Now your mind is thinking about what you were reading in the book, what your Mom told you and the loud TV. Your stress levels now increase drastically because your mind is processing more info than it can handle.

At this point, you are very likely to shut out any more external info to prevent further overloading of the mind that can result in more stress. E.g. if your phone rang, you are very likely to hang up without answering or, if you are really enraged, bang it against the wall :)


To conclude, whenever our mind gets overloaded with information to process (i.e. two or more thoughts at the same time), it makes us feel stressed so that we may slow down or stop receiving more data to process.

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