Psychologists have conceptualized stress in three ways:
1. Stress is viewed as a stimulus if the person perceives events or circumstances as threatening or harmful (stressors).
2. Stress is a response to environmental challenges, if the person examines the physical and psychologic stress that stressors produce.
3. Stress is a process that involves continuous interactions and adjustments between the person and the environment.
On the basis of these concepts, stress can be defined as the condition that results when person-environment transactions lead to a perceived discrepancy between the demands of the situation and the resources of the person's biologic, psychologic, and social system.1
This definition may suggest that stress in sports and exercise should be understood as a condition that is challenging, threatening, or even harmful to the body. With perfect body condition, finishing a marathon is rewarding. With tight hamstring muscles, the same marathon is stressful. The tight muscles may be the consequence of excessive repetitive use, or overtraining, and now they also become stressors. If an athlete with tight hamstring muscles believes that a coming marathon will be a tough challenge, he or she may be comparing it with a previous easily accomplished marathon, understanding that his or her current training was handicapped or not completed because of tight hamstring muscles. If the athlete continues to feel the tight muscles, his or her thinking may evolve into anxiety and fear, which lead to psychologic stress, which in turn can cause homeostatic imbalance of the musculo-skeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, and digestive systems. Together, these imbalances manifest as pre-competition anxiety. The physical demands on the working muscles send signals to the brain, a bottom-up pattern of stress activation. The athlete's thinking, which includes the memory of past experience, creates tension in the body, a top-down pattern of stress activation. These are examples of interaction between psychologic and physical stresses.
Physical training involves repeating a set of exercises with increasing intensity over an extended period. Selye2 noticed that exposure to a particular stressor can increase the body's ability to cope with that stressor in the future through a process of physiologic adaptation. The increase in ability and performance with training shows how the body adapts to the required effort. Selye also recognized that severe and extended exposure to any stressor could ultimately exceed the ability of the system to cope. Runners who habitually train more than 45 miles a week at moderate to high intensity are known to have chronically elevated cortisol levels and negative mood states.3 Full recovery from overtraining stress may take months of abstinence from the particular exercise.
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