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What is stress?

Learn what types of stress can affect us and what it can do to our minds and body.

Introduction

Stress is a common condition. It is said that up to 70% of visits to the doctor are either triggered by or related to stress. But, what exactly is stress? How does it come about?

This page describes what happens when we find ourselves in a stressful situation. It looks at how stress symptoms  arise and what factors contribute to stress.

Although stress, or a feeling of being under pressure, is a common complaint, what is clear is that not all stress is bad. We start with a discussion on ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ stress.

What is positive stress?

Although we usually think of stress as being negative, stress can be an enjoyable experience. So what is good stress?

  • The desire to win a game of tennis is positive stress
  • Watching a game of football, whichever side you support and whatever the outcome, can be stressful, but enjoyable
  • Even a good, enjoyable argument can be stressful in a positive way

What is well-known is that a sports person needs to be under stress to perform well. How they handle stress and how they behave under stress, largely defines whether or not they will win. These stresses are generally seen to be positive.

What is negative stress?

Most of the time however, the word stress is used when we face one or more situations (or problems) and find them too difficult or overwhelming to cope with. Anything found to be causing a challenge or a threat to our normal state of living, to our mental or physical health, is what we would generally refer to as stress.

Many of the pressures of modern day living are examples of negative stress:

  • Family worries or illness
  • Pressure at work
  • Financial worries

Stress can take over mental well-being and affect many daily situations. What would normally be a common everyday problem can be inflated or blown out of proportion, leading to stress and anxiety.

It is well-known that long-term chronic stress can lead to physical illnesses and stress has been shown to trigger up to 85% of serious illnesses. However, what is clear is that in itself, stress is not classified as an illness.

Stress can lead to anxiety and other psychological states which are conditions which have to be taken seriously. In addition, if no action is taken, it can lead to a number of well-defined physical conditions such as high blood pressure and circulatory problems such as strokes and heart attacks.

The factors leading to stress

There are two groups of factors leading to how we cope with stress – these are known as external and internal factors, also known as ‘stressors’.

  • Examples of external factors generally lie within the physical environment. What is clear is that how happy you are in your job, relationships with family, friends and work colleagues, and your home life are key determining factors in how you face the stress of challenging situations or difficulties which occur in everyday life.
  • Internal factors are what we are born with – otherwise known as our personality. Our body’s response mechanism to coping with these external pressures or stressors are important factors – we know looking around that some people are calmer than others and appear to cope with stress better.

But, we cope with stress better some days, compared to others. What seems to be the case is that a number of factors can influence the way we deal with stressors – these include our general health and fitness levels, what our emotional state is (ie. how we feel), our nutritional balance and the amount of rest and sleep you are getting.

Whether or not we feel stressed depends on these factors. It is well-known that people can cope with or respond differently to the same stressful situation depending on what their personalities are like.

Also, a person can cope better at one point in time compared to another, given the same set of circumstances. Often we can’t avoid or change the external factors. What is clear is that the internal factors governing how our mind and body copes is a major factor in how stressed we feel.

What causes stress symptoms?

Stress gives rise to an extremely wide range of stress symptoms. In order to understand how these arise, it is important to understand what happens when the body is faced with a sudden or acute stressful situation.

It was a scientist known as Walter Cannon who, in 1932, first described the release of the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. What he found was that when a person feels in danger or threatened, the nervous system quickly reacts by releasing these stress hormones into the blood stream.

Stress hormones are there to aid what is termed the ‘fight or flight’ response. They have the following effects on the body:

  • Increases the heart rate and blood pressure. This helps to deliver more oxygen and blood sugar to muscles in preparation for fighting or running. This is what causes our heart to pound
  • Increases sweat production to cool our muscles ensuring they continue to work efficiently. This leads to the common experience of sweating when under pressure
  • Diversion of blood away from the skin to deeper inside the body in an effort to reduce blood loss if there is damage to the skin. This is what causes us to feel shivery or ‘tingly’ when under stress
  • Focuses our minds, directing our full attention to the perceived threat by blocking other thoughts around us
  • Faster breathing brings more oxygen into the body – this is what is needed for more glucose to be converted into energy
  • The immune system is activated to prepare for action to heal wounds
  • The body releases pain relieving hormones to decrease our sense of pain
  • Slowing or turning down of non-essential body functions, such as the digestive system.

Acute and chronic stress

The symptoms above describe what happens in the body when faced with acute or sudden stress, such as:

  • a sudden noise
  • stage fright when giving a presentation
  • on hearing bad news
  • a situation perceived as threatening where the body feels it needs to either defend itself against, or run away from danger

For most of us however, stress is present in what seems to be a more long-term situation lasting days or even months. For example:

  • Deadlines at work
  • Being in an unhappy relationship
  • Loss of a job
  • Financial worries
  • Health worries

In these situations, the responses described above take place at a lower level. Hence, although you may not feel your heart pounding, your heart rate and blood pressure could be higher than normal.

Although to a milder degree, the longer-term stresses take a toll on the body. For example, this is what causes the commonly known observation that people in highly stressed jobs have high blood pressure.

Further reading:
Stress
Stress symptoms
Stress treatments
Stress self help