The word “stress,” conjures up unpleasant images of worry and anxiety – of busy days filled with to-do lists we’ll never finish, bills to pay, and no time to relax. All of those things are part of the stress puzzle, but they’re not the whole picture. Stress isn’t always about worry, and the better we can understand stress, the better we can learn how to handle it for healthier – and happier – living.

Stress is the body’s response to any change. Any event – whether positive or negative – that causes a change in your life, your body, or your emotions is a form of stress. If you get your dream promotion, you’re experiencing stress. On the other hand, if you get fired, you’re also experiencing stress. Whenever a change occurs, our bodies and minds prepare for action of some kind – and this response is stress in action.

Stress and Stressors

The term “stress,” as it is currently used was coined by Dr. Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”

In his many experiments, Selye noticed that laboratory animals developed health problems and disease after being exposed to different physical and emotional stimuli.

This led to confusion over the word’s meaning, and “stress” became associated with solely negative connotations. In a 1951 issue of the British Medical Journal one physician concluded that, “Stress in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.”

Because of this, a new word was coined: “stressor,” to distinguish stimulus from response. When people talk about “stress” in their lives, they are usually referring to a stressor – the situation or event that is actually causing them to experience stress.

The American Institute of Stress (AIS) explains:

Stress was generally considered as being synonymous with distress and dictionaries defined it as “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension” or “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” Thus, stress was put in a negative light and its positive effects ignored. However, stress can be helpful and good when it motivates people to accomplish more.

Stress means different things to different people: one man’s stressor may be another man’s pleasure. Everyone has a unique set of resources and perceptions, so what seems like a threat to one person may be viewed as an exciting challenge to another.

AIS provides an example:

As noted, stress is difficult to define because it is so different for each of us. A good example is afforded by observing passengers on a steep roller coaster ride. Some are hunched down in the back seats, eyes shut, jaws clenched and white knuckled with an iron grip on the retaining bar. They can’t wait for the ride in the torture chamber to end so they can get back on solid ground and scamper away. But up front are the wide-eyed thrill seekers, yelling and relishing each steep plunge who race to get on the very next ride. And in between you may find a few with an air of nonchalance that borders on boredom. So, was the roller coaster ride stressful?

The roller coaster analogy is useful in explaining why the same stressor can differ so much for each of us. What distinguished the passengers in the back from those up front was the sense of control they had over the event. While neither group had any more or less control their perceptions and expectations were quite different.

Eustress and Distress

Now, experts use the terms “eustress” and “distress” to differentiate between positive stress and negative stress.

Eustress is “good stress.” It has the following characteristics:

  • Motivates, focuses energy
  • Is short-term
  • Is perceived as within our coping abilities
  • Feels exciting
  • Improves performance


Distress is “negative stress” and has the following characteristics:

  • Causes anxiety or concern
  • Can be short or long-term
  • Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
  • Feels unpleasant
  • Decreases performance
  • Can lead to mental and physical problems


While eustress generally isn’t damaging like distress is, too much can take a toll on you.

Some signs that you need to slow down include:

  • Impatience or edginess
  • Lack of enjoyment
  • Sleep problems
  • Exhaustion

Types of Stressors

Even though different people have different reactions to specific situations, there are stressors that are generally experienced as positive or negative by most. Divorce, death in the family, financial problems, unemployment, serious illness, and legal problems are examples of common negative stressors. Examples of positive stressors include starting a new job, a promotion or raise at work, marriage, buying a house, having a child, the holiday season, moving, and taking a vacation.

Stressors are not always external. Internal stressors, including feelings, thoughts, and habitual behaviors can also cause negative stress.

Common internal sources of distress include:

  • Fears and phobias (examples: fears of flying, heights, public speaking, or social phobia)
  • Repetitive thought patterns and negative thinking
  • Worrying about future events
  • Unrealistic, perfectionist expectations


Habitual behavior patterns that can lead to stress include:

  • Over-scheduling
  • Failing to be assertive
  • Procrastination and/or failing to plan ahead

Types of Stress

Psychologists categorize stress into three different types: acute, episodic acute, and chronic.

Acute Stress

The most common form, acute stress comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future. Acute stress is thrilling and exciting in small doses, but too much is exhausting. Because it is generally short-lived, acute stress doesn’t have time to inflict much serious damage.

Common symptoms of acute stress can be emotional and physical, and include anxiety, irritability, depression, tension headaches, back pain, muscle tension, digestive issues (heartburn, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome), elevated blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and shortness of breath or chest pain.

Episodic Acute Stress

Acute stress that occurs frequently is referred to as episodic acute stress. It usually affects people who live disordered, chaotic lives. Nearly every day is filled with stress for sufferers, who often refer to themselves as “full of nervous energy,” “very busy,” or “always in a hurry.” The “Type A” personality is similar to an extreme case of episodic acute stress. Type As have an “excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience, and a harrying sense of time urgency.” They are also much more likely to develop heart disease than people with healthy levels of stress.

People who are prone to worrying and anxiety also can fall victim to episodic acute stress. They tend to be pessimistic and believe disaster is waiting around every corner.

Symptoms associated with episodic acute stress include persistent tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain, and heart disease. Treating episodic acute stress can be difficult because sufferers often see nothing wrong with the way they conduct their lives. They tend to view their lifestyle and habits as “just who they are” and are resistant to change.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress results from a state of ongoing physiological arousal that occurs when the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity that the autonomic nervous system does not have a chance to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis.

It can have a serious impact on physical as well as psychological health due to sustained high levels of the chemicals released in the “fight or flight” response.

Chronic stress can adversely affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and central nervous systems.

Here’s an explanation of the nervous system’s role in the stress response from Psych Central:

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a vast network of nerves reaching out from the spinal cord, directly affecting every organ in the body. It has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which have opposite effects.

The sympathetic ANS helps us deal with stressful situations by initiating a “fight or flight” reaction. After the danger has passed, the parasympathetic ANS takes over, decreasing heartbeat and relaxing blood vessels.

In healthy people, the two branches of the ANS maintain a balance — action followed by relaxation. Unfortunately many people’s sympathetic ANS stays on guard, making them unable to relax and let the parasympathetic system take over. If this situation becomes chronic, a whole variety of stress-related symptoms and illnesses can follow.

Mind and body are inextricably linked and the interaction between them can produce physical changes. Our brain notices a stressor, a physical reaction is triggered, and the reaction can lead to further emotional reactions and mental and physical damage. Some problems such as headaches and muscle tension are often directly caused by the bodily responses that accompany stress. Many other disorders, some say most, are aggravated by stress.

Chronic stress can occur in response to everyday stressors that are ignored or poorly managed, as well as to exposure to traumatic events. The consequences of chronic stress are serious, particularly because it contributes to anxiety and depression. In addition to heart disease, suicide, violence, weight gain, insomnia, pain, gastrointestinal disorders, and even cancer have been linked to chronic stress.

Because physical and mental resources are often depleted, the symptoms of chronic stress are difficult to treat and may require extended medical as well as behavioral treatment and stress management.

Coping With Stress

Because stress is a normal part of life, it is important to learn how to manage the impact it has on you. The good news is that there are many things you can do to cope.

Reframe: Change your perception about stressful situations and view them as a challenge rather than a threat. Focus on available resources, see the hidden potential benefits of a situation, and remind yourself of your strengths. Getting into the habit of thinking like an optimist can also help. Set realistic expectations – perfectionism can lead to more stress. Learning to tolerate uncertainty and accepting that you cannot control everything can help reduce stress, too.

Accept:  Acknowledge that you are experiencing stress and that it is just a feeling and will pass. Look at the bigger picture: will this problem matter in a few days? A week? A month? Is it worth getting worked up over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.

Understand: Realize that your mind is likely playing tricks on you. Things are probably not nearly as bad as you think.

Have self-compassion: Cut yourself some slack – we all goof up sometimes, and treating yourself with kindness and understanding will ease your stress levels and make it easier to learn from your mistakes.

Focus: Are you stressed out about something that might happen later? Are you imagining worst-case scenarios? If so, bring yourself back to the present and focus on what is happening now – and what you CAN control.

Breathe: Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful stress-reducing trick because it activates the body’s relaxation response. It helps your body shift from the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system to the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, suggests slowly inhaling to a count of 4, filling your belly first and then your chest, gently holding your breath to a count of 4, and slowly exhaling to a count of 4. Repeat several times.

Meditate: There are several ways to do this – you can find a quiet place to escape for a few minutes, go on a focused walk, or use imagery to bring yourself to a calmer place.

Visualize: Imagine yourself handling whatever situation is making you stressed with calmness and grace.

Move: Go for a walk if you can – clear your head and get some fresh air.  Studies have shown that sitting too much can increase stress levels, so get up and move around throughout the day.

Write: Carry a notepad or a journal with you. Get your thoughts and worries down on paper and out of your mind.

Organize:  You don’t need to micro-manage every minute of every day, but reducing the number of decisions you need to make by using routines can help you avoid stress. If there’s something you need to do every day, do it at the same time every day – that way, there’s one less thing you have to worry about fitting in or forgetting.

Use lists:  To-do lists can either reduce stress or increase it. If you have a list that is steadily growing and you find you aren’t checking off any of the items, that’s not going to help you become less frazzled, is it? To improve your to-do list (and reduce your stress), try using “if-then planning.”  For each item on your to-do list, add a specific when and where. For example, “Remember to call Bob” becomes “If it is Tuesday after lunch, then I’ll call Bob.” Now that you’ve created an if-then plan for calling Bob, your unconscious brain will start scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan.

Try Biofeedback: This technique can help you learn how to control your response to stressors. It is especially useful in helping people learn to deal with stress in a healthy way, and it therefore also helps to relieve a variety of stress-related illnesses.

Take care of yourself: Avoid using caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, junk food, binge eating, and drugs as your primary means for coping with stress. While they can be helpful on occasion, using them as your only or primary method will result in longer-term issues, such as weight problems, alcoholism, or addiction.

Sleep well: Insufficient sleep is a problem that plagues many of us, and the consequences can be disastrous. If you are experiencing sleep difficulty or insomnia, whether acute or chronic, practicing good sleep habits is crucial to helping you better manage the challenges of everyday life.

Nurture yourself:  Yes, you are busy – most of us are. But that’s no excuse to neglect your needs. Set aside time to relax and participate in activities you enjoy. Exercise. Take a yoga class. Read. Listen to music. Light some scented candles and take a long bubble bath. Treat yourself to a massage. Watch a funny movie or TV show.

How is stress affecting YOUR life?

These self-assessments are not meant to replace those given by healthcare providers, but they can give you an idea of how stress is impacting your life and health.

Stress and Health Self Test

Stress Symptom Quiz 

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