What is stress? Helpful definitions and stress management tips

At some point in time, everyone feels stress. It is a universal part of life, and yet if it isn’t dealt with effectively, it can start to affect our physical and mental health over time. 

The term “stress” doesn’t necessarily have a universally agreed upon definition, though a good working definition is a natural response to a situation when the demands placed on a person outweigh their resources. Stress is a way that our body communicates to us that we’re unable to meet a demand.

When we move through life, there are many times where we might feel as though our resources, whether they be physical or emotional, are not up to the task at hand. Despite this, life goes on, and we must find ways to keep functioning and take care of ourselves before our work overwhelms us.

Read on to learn more about the nuances of stress and its effects on one’s physical and mental well-being.

What Are the 3 Types of Stress?

Three of the most well-known categories of stress are based on the duration of one’s stress. These three types of stress are: 

  • Acute stress: A person’s psychological and/or physiological response to a stressful situation happening over a short period of time. These situations could be due to job loss, a near-collision, or worry over being underprepared for performance or exam.
  • Episodic acute stress: A person’s psychological and/or physiological response to regular instances of acute stress, such as stress from caring for a disabled parent, taking on too much responsibility, or catastrophizing.
  • Chronic stress: A person’s psychological and/or physiological response to experiencing a long-term stressful situation. This type of stress can be caused by things like living in unsafe conditions, ongoing loneliness, or being consistently overworked. The object, situation, or person who caused the stress does not have to be physically present for chronic stress to continue to occur.

Stress can also differ in intensity and quality. Aside from the three types above, there is a positive type of stress as well as a negative type. The positive, eustress, occurs when a situation provides enough stress to be motivating, to help decision making, or encourages us to break out of our comfort zone. Eustress also makes us feel good about accomplishing tasks, starting new chapters of life, and reaching our goals.

The negative type, called distress, is what most people think of when they use the term “stress.” It causes negative feelings and emotions, and it occurs when our minds believe that we are confronted with problems that are too hard to overcome or ones that feel like a source of harm. Distress is destructive and can cause problems with one’s physical health as well as emotional health if it is not relieved over long periods of time.

What Exactly Causes Stress?

Since stress is a response to a demanding situation, it can be caused by internal or external factors, circumstances, or situations.

Some of the most common demands people face in their everyday lives are:

  • Time
  • Money or access to financial resources
  • Physical condition, energy or presence
  • Mental or emotional attention, conditioning, or focus
  • Adjustment, maturation or evolution/growth

Each of these factors can happen frequently for most people, and can cause either short moments or long periods of stress.

What Does Stress Feel Like?

Everyone experiences stress differently. Because of this, stress will often express itself in different ways. Some of the more common uncomfortable feelings and symptoms associated with stress are:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Racing thoughts
  • Nervousness
  • Worry
  • Uneasiness
  • Body aches
  • Sleep Disturbance

What Are 5 Emotional Signs of Stress?

Five common emotional signs of stress are: 

  1. Anxiousness; feelings of worry, apprehension and/or nervousness
  2. Depression; crying spells, and feelings of loneliness and/or worthlessness
  3. Feeling overwhelmed or panicked
  4. Anger; frustration, hostility, and/or irritability
  5. Defensiveness; suspicion, fear, and/or difficulty sharing

Many people find that they show the same emotional patterns with the same emotional reactions when they become stressed. With that in mind, pay attention to how you express yourself and your feelings when you are stressed. This can help you spot it coming in the future and allow you to start taking care of yourself and self-soothing preemptively.

How Does Stress Affect the Body? The Effects of Stress

When it is pushed down and ignored for long periods of time, stress can wreak havoc on the body. It can cause discomfort and even damage in most of the systems of the body, including the: 

  • Nervous system. It can cause increased heart rate and high blood pressure, as well as changes in digestion and glucose levels.
  • Musculoskeletal system. Stress can contract or tense up muscles, which can cause back and neck issues as well as headaches and migraines.
  • Respiratory system. Distress causes rapid breathing (hyperventilation), which can, on rare occasions, induce panic attacks.
  • Cardiovascular system. Increased heart rate and dilated blood vessels are both commonly caused by stress. In the long-term, it may cause inflammation in coronary arteries.
  • Endocrine system. Stress creates cortisol and epinephrine, which can affect glucose production in the liver.
  • Gastrointestinal system. Stress may lead to an affected appetite, nausea, or ‘butterflies,’ making it difficult to eat. Nutrients also might not be absorbed as efficiently when stressed, which can lead to diarrhea or constipation.
  • Reproductive system. Chronic stress may affect sperm production or menstrual cycles, causing them to be irregular or more painful, or decrease libido.

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Are There Examples of “Good” Stress? What Are They?

Yes, there are healthy examples of stress. Stress can be both positive and negative, meaning that it can help you as well as hurt you. Eustress is the term that refers to a positive or ”good” response to stress.

“Good” stress (eustress) recognizes that, while we are currently unable to meet a present demand, what is needed to meet the demand can be attained, and we can experience enjoyment in the process. There is usually a benefit of growth, mastery, or fulfillment achieved during the process of meeting the demand as well.

Some examples of eustress stress are: 

  • Getting a new job
  • Having a child
  • Getting married
  • Moving
  • Writing a book
  • Musical performances 
  • Competitive game (sports, video games, cards, board games)

What Is Stress Management?

Stress management involves using a set of strategies and techniques to help yourself handle the effects of stress and situations that are likely to cause stress.

Relaxation techniques (meditation, yoga), diaphragmatic breathing, and coping techniques (self-care, talking with friends) are each examples of stress management techniques.

How to Get Rid of Stress

As with stress management, there are many different methods you can use to try and reduce your stress levels. General stress relief strategies include:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Practicing relaxation techniques
  • Participating in hobbies
  • Interacting with positive social influences
  • Listening to calming music
  • Playing with pets
  • Consuming teas or supplements 
  • And many more

However, getting rid of stress will eventually require you to find a place of balance in your work and life where you feel as though you can fulfill the demands placed on you. Stress is your body’s way of saying too much is being asked of you and you are unable to meet those requests, so in the long-term, getting rid of stress will mean increasing your resources or decreasing those demands.

Here are some considerations to help you bridge the gap:

  • How can you lessen the demands placed on you? You can try to distinguish “necessary” tasks from “extra” tasks, delegate responsibilities and demands, return the task or request an extension, or decline the request, depending on your situation. 
  • How can you increase your resources to meet your demands? Some ways to do this are to develop skills (such as time management, budgeting, or social/communication skills), identify and build relationships with valuable people like people in an interesting group, utilize pre-existing helpful resources (ie. libraries, community centers, churches), or maintain good self-care.

Whatever you decide, make sure to still supplement this with other stress management techniques, or, if your stress feels too overwhelming to deal with on your own, consider seeing a mental health professional. They can offer you support as well as additional tools to help you with your stress.

Table of contents

What Are the 3 Types of Stress?

What Exactly Causes Stress?

What Does Stress Feel Like?

How Does Stress Affect the Body? The Effects of Stress

Are There Examples of “Good” Stress? What Are They?

What Is Stress Management?

How to Get Rid of Stress

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Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC

Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Theresa Welsh, LPC

Theresa Welsh is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

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