What is Stress?

By definition, stress is "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances" that "causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety" (1, 2). Everyone at one time or another is affected by stress, and while it is often attributed to adverse situations that may arise at home or at work, stress can manifest at any given time or place and linger in such a way that it begins to negatively impact our mental, physical, and/or emotional well-being. Stress is circumstantial in that what may prove stressful to a person one day might prove to be stress-free the next day, and yet stress is also highly individual in that what may be stressful to one person may not be stressful to the next person. But why?  Why are some individuals seemingly less affected by stress and/or tolerant to higher levels of stress than others?  What really determines our day-to-day level of stress?  And if we have control over our actions, our decisions, our lives, shouldn't we also have control over our stress?

Stress manifests itself in multiple forms yet possesses one single causality: change. Stress is how the human body reacts physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally to change in our everyday lives.  Positive change, negative change, and even imagined change may cause stress on our mental, physical, and emotional self.  Because all human beings will experience change at one time or another, all human beings will undergo stress as a result.  The degree by which this stress will overshadow our lives, however, is an anamoly best defined by the following analogy: stress tolerance is to stress level as the degree of coping mechanisms are to the perceived changes and demands.

With any type of change, there are demands.  When we perceive that we cannot cope or feel inadequate to meet the challenge presented by the demand, we begin to feel stress. As demands become greater and more complex, so too do our stress levels. People may respond differently to similar changes or demands, and this is because of the varying degree of coping mechanisms we have set in place for ourselves. Whether these coping mechanisms are rooted internally (e.g. self-talk), externally (e.g. a pet), mentally (e.g. meditation), physically (e.g. exercise), or any combination thereof, coping mechanisms are inversely proportionate to stress levels.

What is the Difference Between Anxiety & Stress?

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), "stress is a response to a threat in a situation[; whereas,] anxiety is a reaction to the stress."  A common misnomer is that the root cause of stress is always external (due to other people and/or external situations).  Yet, stress can also manifest internally, particularly when thoughts arise that make us experience feelings of agitatation, anger, anxiousness, guilt, nervousness, or worry, even if such feelings are directed at ourselves or experienced merely in anticipation of a stressful event. These outcomes are our bodies natural response to a stressful source, or trigger, and dissipate relatively quickly.  With anxiety, however, the stressful trigger may have long since passed yet the physical responses remain and culminate with feelings of apprehension, excessive worry, and even fear.  It is this fear that pervades all other emotions felt when anxiety sets in, and as a result, anxiety may take a stronghold over one's inability to live a functional life.  Consider those with a fear of insects, a fear of drowning, a fear of heights, a fear of flying, a fear of driving, a fear of dying, or even a fear of fear itself.  If that person is you, your child,your family member, or your significant other, know that treatment is available and The Anxiety & Stress Management Institute can help.

Is All Stress Bad?

While the term "stress" often yields a negative connotation, stress can be found in two forms: eustress and distress.  Eustress is positive and defined as "stress that is deemed healthful or giving one the feeling of fulfillment."  Distress, however, is negative and is defined as "great pain, anxiety, or sorrow [often characterized by] acute physical or mental suffering; affliction; trouble." (3, 4).  The differences between eustress and distress are such that individuals are less likely to dwell on eustress or characterize its presence in our lives as "positive" or "healthy."  By perceiving stress to be negative due to the overwhelming impact that "negative" or "unhealthy" stress has on our mental, physical, or emotional well-being, individuals are inclinded to percieve all stress as distress, yet this is not so.

Is Stress a Diagnoseable Mental Health Condition?

According to the Diagnostical & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: 5th Edition, stress alone does not deem or warrant a mental diagnosis without meeting certain additional criteria.  The current stress-related diagnoses according to the American Psychiatric Association are as follows:

  1. Acute Stress Disorder
  2. Adjustment Disorder(s)
  3. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  4. Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress
  5. Relationship Distress with Spouse or Intimate Partner
  6. Other Specified Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorder
  7. Reactive Attachment Disorder
  8. Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder
  9. Unspecified Trauma-and Stressor-Related Disorder

It is important to note that stress may manifest from more than one source.  These sources may include but are not limited to work, family, relationships, finances, unrealistic goals/expectations, time management, or in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

There are many ways to reduce and manage stress. One good way to find what may be triggering your stress is to keep a journal. By doing this you are able to write down each time/place/event that causes your stress and anxiety which will help pinpoint things that can help you control the stress.

Top Ten Stress Reducers by Dr. Becky Beaton

  1. Pay attention to your self-talk. Research indicates that the inner dialogue of most people is 77% negative. People tend to focus on the negative in an attempt to survive all the "what ifs" in life, but we end up spending more of our lives worrying than living. Mark Twain once said, "I am an old man and have know great many troubles - but most of them never happened."
  2. Remember to breathe - especially deep slow diaphragmatic breathing. Slow deep breathing actually changes your blood chemistry - reduces your heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the flight or fight response).
  3. Be sure to get plenty of sleep, eat well, and drink plenty of water. Most Americans are truly running a deficit on all three of these, and they are critical to our mental and physical well-being.
  4. Exercise or take a brisk walk. Exercise is one of the best ways to 'burn-off' stress hormones and improve mood.
  5. Learn to meditate. People who take time to meditate or intentionally relax on a regular basis have been shown to weather daily stress more successfully and with better overall health.
  6. Maintain relationships with humans and pets. People who have healthy relationships with friends or family have fewer stress-related illnesses. Also, just petting an animal actually lowers your blood pressure!
  7. Allow extra time for projects or even just to get ready in the morning. Rushing actually triggers a stress response in our body, producing all the harmful stress hormones that alter mood negatively and may eventually turn into illness. Just allowing for a little extra time can go a long way.
  8. Do your best to live in the present and practice mindfulness. This is all we really have, and it's easy to miss the moment if we're focused on the past or future.
  9. Listen to your body's signals. If we don't pay attention to our emotional and mental stress, physical issues begin to emerge. The longer you wait to listen to your body, the louder it will have to speak to you.
  10. Remember the Big Picture and the Cortisol question. Increased levels of stress hormones in our brain actually cause our brain's seat of long-term memory to atrophy. So, the next time you're stressed-out, ask yourself the Cortisol question, "Is stressing out over this really worth shrinking my brain?" It will help keep things in perspective.


1. Google (online).  <https://www.google.com/#q=stress+definition>.  March 27, 2014.

2.  Merriam-Webster (online).  <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stress>.  March 27, 2014.

3.  ADAA (online).  <http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/stress>.  March 27, 2014.

4.  Dictionary (online). <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/eustress?s=t>.  March 27, 2014.

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