The Basics of Stress
What is Stress?
Stress is your body’s response to certain situations. It
is a subjective condition. Something that may be stressful for one
person—speaking in public, for instance—may not be stressful for someone else.
Not all stresses are “bad.” For example, graduating from college may be
considered a “good” form of stress.
Stress can affect your physical health, your mental
health, and your behavior. In response to stressful stimuli, your body turns on
its biological response. Chemicals and hormones are released that are meant to
help your body rise to the challenge. Your heart rate increases, your brain
works faster, you have more focus, and you experience a sudden burst of energy. This response is
natural and basic; it’s what kept our ancestors from falling victim to hungry
Stress overload, however, can have harmful effects. According
to the American
Psychological Association (APA), more than half of Americans report suffering
the health effects of too much stress, and 22 percent say they are under
“extreme” stress. We cannot eliminate stress from our lives, but we can learn
to avoid and manage it.
Is All Stress Bad?
No, not all stress is bad. In fact, it can be healthy because
it helps us avoid accidents, power through unexpected deadlines, or stay clear-minded
in chaotic situations. But stress is meant to be temporary. Once we’ve passed
the “fight or flight” moment, our bodies should return to a natural state—heart
rate slows, muscles release, breathing returns to normal. But the circumstances
of chronic stress so many of us face as a result of the pressures and demands
of our modern lives mean our bodies may frequently be in a heightened state
with our heart pumping hard and our blood vessels constricted. Over time, these
physiologic demands begin to take a toll on the body. This is the unhealthy
side of stress.
What Are the Types of Stress?
Acute stress is your body’s immediate reaction to a new
challenge, event, or demand—the fight or flight response. You may experience a
biological response to cope with the
pressures of a near-miss automobile accident, an argument with a family member,
or a costly mistake at work. Acute stress isn’t always caused by negative
stress; it’s also the experience you have when riding a roller coaster or
having a person jump out at you in a haunted house.
Isolated episodes of acute stress should not have any
lingering health effects. In fact, they might actually be healthy for you.
Stressful situations give your body and brain practice in developing the best
response to future stressful situations.
Severe acute stress such as stress suffered as the
victim of a crime or life-threatening situation can lead to mental health
problems, such as post-traumatic
stress disorder or acute
If acute stress isn’t resolved and begins to increase or
lasts for long periods of time, it becomes chronic stress. Chronic stress can be detrimental to your health. It can contribute to several serious diseases or health risks, such as heart
disease, cancer, lung disease, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
How Should Stress Be Managed?
The goal of stress management isn’t to get rid of it
completely. That would be entirely impossible. In fact, stress can be healthy
in some situations.
Instead, the goal is to identify a person’s
stressors—what it is that causes him or her the most problems, or demands the
most energy—and find ways to overcome the negative stress those things normally
By managing chronic stress and episodes of acute stress,
when possible, you can reduce your risks of stress-related illnesses and
disease. You will also feel better, think more clearly, and relate with others
better without the distraction of stress.