What is Stress?
Stress is something that we are all familiar with to a certain degree. It is your natural reaction to any kind of stimuli, both good and bad. It can be good when it motivates us to get things done or confront a fear but there is also bad stress. Bad stress is the kind brought on by getting stuck in traffic, bad news from a friend or family member, money woes, or something job-related. It can last a little while or for a long time.
Technically speaking, stress is difficult to define because it is a subjective assessment of our physical, emotional, and psychological selves. Something that makes you feel overwhelmed may not bother a friend at all.
On a biological level, stress can play an important role in the “fight or flight” response that is garnered when we are in a situation of potential danger.
Physiological changes include increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and increased adrenaline, to name a few. These changes allow your body to react most efficiently in a situation that we either need to react to physically (fight response) or to escape from (flight response).
Prolonged periods of stress eventually cause your body to begin shutting down because of the intense toll it can take on your body. There is a balance to how much stress is easily managed but is not so stressful that it disrupts our lives.
If 100 people were asked about stress, what their stressors are, and how they feel stress, you would likely get 100 different answers. Stress is a very subjective feeling, meaning that it can be difficult to measure. We all feel stress differently, at different levels, and about different instigators. However, there is some overlap in the types of responses to stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress, the current definition is “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Essentially, stress is a response to a certain type (or types) of stimuli.
Common Reactions to a Stressful Event:
After a terrifying event, many people may have strong (and sometimes), lingering reactions (especially natural disasters, personal attacks, or threats). These strong emotions may be normal and temporary.
- Disbelief, shock, and numbness
- Feeling sad, frustrated, and helpless
- Fear and anxiety about the future
- Feeling guilty
- Anger, tension, and irritability
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Reduced interest in usual activities
- Wanting to be alone
- Loss of appetite
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Nightmares or bad memories
- Reoccurring thoughts of the event
- Headaches, back pains, and stomach problems
- Increased heart rate, difficulty breathing
- Increased smoking or use of alcohol or drugs
If symptoms are experienced over a long period of time, stress can become post-traumatic stress disorder.
Is All Stress Bad?
Stress is caused by both good and bad things in our lives and it is important to remember that just because it is good stress does not mean we will not have an adverse reaction to it. Stress can be exhibited in a number of physiological ways: pain, sweating, headache, high blood pressure, lowered immune system, nervousness, and upset stomach.
When stress takes a physiological toll on your body, your body attempts to compensate. Often our behaviors change to reflect these attempts to compensate; we may alter our diet, sleep pattern, activity, or drug or substance use.
However, there are a number of ways to manage and treat stress.
Stress is not always a bad thing. Stress is simply the body’s response to changes that create taxing demands. There’s a difference between positive and negative stress. Positive stress has the following effects:
- Motivates you
- Well within our coping abilities
- Feels exciting
- Improves performance
Examples of positive personal stressors include:
- Receiving a promotion or raise at work
- Starting a new job
- Buying a home
- Having a child
- Taking a vacation
- Holiday seasons
- Taking educational classes or learning a new hobby
In contrast, distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:
- Causes anxiety or concern
- Can be short- or long-term
- Is outside of our coping abilities
- Feels unpleasant
- Decreases performance
- Can lead to mental and physical problems
It’s hard to distinguish stressors into those that cause positive stress and those that cause distress, as everyone reacts to situations differently. The following is a generalized list of negative personal stressors, including:
- The death of a spouse
- Filing for divorce
- Losing contact with loved ones
- The death of a family member
- Hospitalization (oneself or a family member)
- Injury or illness (oneself or a family member)
- Being abused or neglected
- Separation from a spouse or committed relationship partner
- Conflict in interpersonal relationships
- Bankruptcy/Money Problems
- Sleep problems
- Children’s problems at school
- Legal problems
Work and employment concerns such as those listed below are also frequent causes of distress:
- Excessive job demands
- Job insecurity
- Conflicts with teammates and supervisors
- Inadequate authority necessary to carry out tasks
- Lack of training necessary to do the job
- Making presentations in front of colleagues or clients
- Unproductive and time-consuming meetings
- Commuting and travel schedules
Stressors aren’t always created from outside forces. In fact, internal feelings, thoughts, and habitual behaviors can lead to negative stress as well.
Common internally-based sources of distress can involve:
- Fears: (e.g., fears of flying, heights, public speaking, chatting with strangers at a party)
- Repetitive Thought Patterns
- Worrying about future events (e.g., waiting for medical test results or job restructuring)
- Unrealistic, perfectionist expectations
Habitual behavior patterns that can lead to stress include:
- Lack of assertiveness
- Failing to plan ahead
When Are You Most Vulnerable to Stress?
People are most susceptible to stress when they are:
- Not getting enough sleep
- Don’t have a support network
- Undergoing a major life change such as moving, the death of a loved one, starting a new job, having a child or getting married
- Experiencing poor physical health
- Not eating well
Everyone has his own threshold. Certain things that may upset you out might not even make one of your friends raise an eyebrow. Some people are affected when they experience large crowds and noisy environments, while others react to silence and free time.
What Are The Different Types of Stress?
Managing stress can be complex as there are different types of stress: acute, chronic, and episodic stress. Each type of stress has its own causes, symptoms, duration, and treatment. The different types of stresses are as follows:
Acute Stress: Acute stress is the most common type of stress as it is related to pressures and the demands of the past, as well as the anticipated pressures that will occur in the future. For some, acute stress feels exhilarating, but the longer the duration, the more exhausting stress becomes. Overdoing acute, short-term stress can cause many of the unpleasant symptoms associated with stress. Luckily, most people recognize it when they are facing acute stress: it’s a major list of the things that have been troubling in their life.
Fortunately, acute stress is short-term, meaning that it doesn’t have the chance to do the damage that long-term stress creates. The most common symptoms of short-term stress can include:
Acute stress can crop up in anyone’s life, and it is highly treatable and manageable.
- emotional distress
- tension headache
- back and jaw pain
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- elevated blood pressure
- shortness of breath
- heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat
Episodic Acute Stress: Unfortunately, there are people who do suffer acute stress more than others and whose lives are in total chaos and crisis mode. Many people who suffer episodic acute stress deal with lives that are a study in Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong, it does). These people may take on too much, can’t quite organize themselves, are often late, and have many self-inflicted pressures and demands. These individuals tend to always be in the cross-hairs of acute stress. People who have episodic acute stress may come across as grumpy, irritable, tense, and anxious and may even call themselves “a bundle of nervous energy.”
There are those, however, who suffer acute stress frequently, whose lives are so disordered that they are studies in chaos and crisis. They’re always in a rush, but always late. If something can go wrong, it does. They take on too much, have too many irons in the fire, and can’t organize the slew of self-inflicted demands and pressures clamoring for their attention. They seem perpetually in the clutches of acute stress. Work, especially, can cause a lot of stress for these people.
Many people who suffer episodic acute stress also consider themselves to have a Type A personality, marked by an extremely competitive focus, aggressiveness, impatience, and a sense of urgency, hostility, and insecurity. These personality identifiers cause frequent episodes of acute stress. (Type A individuals are also at a greater risk to develop coronary heart disease than Type B individuals, who have a much more laid back attitude).
Other people may find they have episodes of free-form anxiety and endlessly worry about events outside of their control. This too can cause episodic acute stress. These people often see disaster around every corner, pessimistically deal with every situation, always expecting catastrophe. These people may feel that the world is an unsafe, dangerous, and punishing place, and they tend to feel more depressed and anxious than Type A personalities.
The symptoms of episodic acute stress are the symptoms of extended overarousal:
- persistent tension headaches
- chest pain
- heart disease
Often, lifestyle and personality issues are so ingrained and habitual with these individuals that they see nothing wrong with the way they conduct their lives. They blame their woes on other people and external events. Frequently, they see their lifestyle, their patterns of interacting with others, and their ways of perceiving the world as part and parcel of who and what they are.
Sometimes both lifestyle and personality issues are so firmly habitual that people who live in a state of episodic acute stress see their lifestyle as normal; often blaming their problems on external events and other people. Many times, these people see their life, the way they interact with other people and their environment as a part of who they are at their core. These beliefs often mean that the sufferers of episodic acute stress resist change at all cost. They may only seek help with the promise of release from pain and discomfort of their symptoms.
Chronic Stress: is the most difficult of all types of stress. Where acute stress can feel glamorous and exciting, chronic stress is the opposite. Chronic stress grinds people down day after day, year after year until treatment or death occurs. Chronic stress is terrible on the body – it destroys our bodies, minds, and even life. Chronic stress can occur from a number of difficult situations: poverty, mentally ill or dysfunctional families, or being trapped in an abusive relationship.
People facing chronic stress never see a way out of their awful situation. The unrelenting demands and pressures of daily life wear these people down, and without any hope of a reprieve, these people often give up looking for solutions. This may be caused by:
- Chronic stress may be caused by traumatic, early childhood experiments that people have internalized (thus remaining present and painful)
- Some experiences that majorly affect personality
- Seeing or believing something that causes unending stress (you must be perfect, the world is a bad place).
Recovery from these types of chronic stressors includes introspection and self-examination.
Unfortunately, chronic stress is often just swept away as a “part of life,” and people forget it’s there. Chronic stress is terrible on the body and mind and can lead to death by:
- Heart attack
People experiencing long-term chronic stress finally wear themselves down to a final and fatal breakdown as their physical and mental resources are depleted over time. Treating the symptoms of chronic stress is challenging and may require medical treatment, stress management, and behavioral treatments.
How to Manage Stress:
- Exercise is known to help relieve stress. It is the most effective way of reducing cortisol, which is a chemical released into your body that is directly tied to stress. Being active also helps reset your body’s responses and disengage the “fight or flight” response.
- Understand your stress As everyone experiences stress differently, learn about your stress. How do you know when you are stressed? How are your thoughts or behaviors different from times when you do not feel stressed?
- Identify your sources of stress What events or situations trigger stressful feelings? Are they related to your children, family, health, financial decisions, work, relationships, or something else?
- Learn your own stress signals. People experience stress in different ways. You may have a hard time concentrating or making decisions, feel angry, irritable or out of control, or experience headaches, muscle tension or a lack of energy. Gauge your stress signals.
- Recognize how you deal with stress. Determine if you are using unhealthy behaviors (such as smoking, drinking alcohol and over/under eating) to cope. Is this a routine behavior, or is it specific to certain events or situations? Do you make unhealthy choices as a result of feeling rushed and overwhelmed?
- Find healthy ways to manage stress. Consider healthy, stress-reducing activities such as meditation, exercising or talking things out with friends or family. Keep in mind that unhealthy behaviors develop over time and can be difficult to change. Don’t take on too much at once. Focus on changing only one behavior at a time.
- Creating lists or organizing are ways of managing your “headspace.” Lists help you create concrete, tangible goals in terms of managing and reducing your stressors.
- Decreased drug, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine use are often beneficial when managing stress. These substances change your body chemistry and often depress the release of important chemicals and hormones.
- Finding ways to relax is the key to managing stress. Whether it is walking your dog, reading a book, meditation, or a vacation, taking breaks allows you to regain a measure of control over your immediate situation.
- Similarly, taking deep breaths helps slow down the heart rate and lower blood pressure, as we often breath more quickly and shallowly when agitated.
- Maintain a strong network of support. Sometimes you may feel the need to ask a friend or family member to help you deal with your stress. Whether you need someone to talk to or a friend to help you through a stressful situation, a good support network can help.
- If you are in a stressful situation that is difficult to manage or your stress progresses into chronic issues such as anxiety or depression, it may be worth seeking the assistance of a medical professional.
- A primary care physician should be able to provide treatment options – this may include stress management and coping tips and/or medication to correct symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure.
- Talk therapy can be useful for discussing specific stressors or issues that have resulted in stress or symptoms of stress.
Additional Resources for Stress:
American Institute of Stress: a great resource to learn more about stress and its effects.
Last audited 7/2019