What is stress

What is Stress: An Introduction

Feeling like life’s pressures are too much, your heart racing, and your mind in overdrive? 83% of Americans are reporting workplace stress. The ripple effects extend to personal relationships, with 76% indicating that workplace stress has negatively impacted their interpersonal relations.

Stress. We all experience it, but what does it mean? How does our body react when we’re overwhelmed? Is it always harmful? 12.

We’ll explore these questions, giving you a better understanding of stress. This will help in finding effective ways to manage it, promoting a calmer, healthier life.

Key Takeaways

  • Stress resembles a double-edged sword, enhancing abilities for major events but potentially causing breakdowns.
  • It is a prevalent aspect of life that challenges our capacity to bounce back.
  • Striking a balance is crucial as excessive stress can trigger health complications.
  • Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and exercise effectively manage stress.
  • It’s crucial to manage stress for better health, prompting immediate action for stress control.

A Basic Understanding of Stress

To grasp the concept of stress, it’s crucial to understand that it is our body’s natural response to any kind of demand or threat. When we face a challenging situation, our body triggers a series of events known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. That, in simple terms, is the basic understanding of stress.

Now, let’s delve deeper into the definition of stress. It is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Our body’s reaction to these factors is what is stress.

Types of Stress

Building on our basic understanding, let’s now explore the different types of stress, each presenting its unique challenges and effects on our body and mind.

Acute stress is the most common type we experience. It’s a direct response to a new challenge, event, or demand, and it’s often short-lived. Its effects can be thrilling and exciting, but also exhausting. Think of it as your body’s immediate reaction to a new situation. You feel this kind when you slam on the brakes, have a fight with your partner, or ski down a steep slope.

Next, there is episodic acute stress. This occurs when you frequently experience acute stress. It’s like having a series of intense stress moments, which can be quite draining.

Chronic stress is the most harmful type. It’s long-term stress that’s almost a part of your daily life. If not managed, it can lead to serious health issues, including heart disease and depression. This type might be caused by financial troubles, an unhappy marriage, or problems at work.

Type of StressDescription
Acute StressShort-term response to new challenges
Episodic Acute StressFrequent intense stress moments
Chronic StressLong-term stress, potential health issues
Positive Stress or EustressA positive form of stress, beneficial excitement
Negative Stress or DistressLong-term exposure to stressors, detrimental
Types of Stress

Interestingly, not all stress is negative. Eustress is a positive form of stress that can be beneficial. It’s the type of stress you feel when you’re excited about something, like starting a new job or going on a date. Lastly, negative stress or distress, often associated with long-term exposure to stressors, can be detrimental to our health and well-being.

Stress Response and Hormones

When we are under stress, our body is releasing a surge of hormones to help us cope. This stress response is an ancient survival mechanism that prepares us to either confront or escape from a threat.

The primary stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline boosts our heart rate and energy supplies, focusing our alertness and readiness for immediate action. Cortisol, the primary fight or flight response hormone, has a vital role too. It curbs functions that would be nonessential in a fight or flight situation such as digestion and enhances the body’s ability to repair tissues.

Cortisol and stress go hand in hand. While short-term bursts of cortisol can help us manage stressful situations, prolonged cortisol stress hormone release due to chronic stress can wreak havoc on our bodies. It can disrupt almost all our body’s processes, increasing our risk of numerous health issues from anxiety and depression to heart disease.

CortisolIncreases blood sugar
AdrenalineAccelerates heart rate
NorepinephrineConstricts blood vessels
 Stress Hormones

Stress and the Nervous System

Chronic stress has a profound impact on the nervous system, leading to various health issues. The autonomic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ and the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ systems, plays a significant role in stress response. A balanced functioning of these systems (homeostasis) is essential for overall health.

The amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for processing threats, can become overactive due to continuous stress. This overactivity can lead to persistent stress and anxiety, disrupting mental health and the balance of the nervous system. Additionally, chronic stress can cause imbalances in neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, leading to a dysregulated nervous system. These imbalances can manifest as mood swings, chronic fatigue, or anxiety, indicating stress-related issues.

The sympathetic vs parasympathetic nervous systems
The sympathetic vs parasympathetic nervous systems

The Impact of Stress on the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, plays a pivotal role in managing stress and maintaining homeostasis in the body. Extending from the brainstem to the abdomen, it acts as the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which counterbalances the sympathetic system’s “fight or flight” response. The vagus nerve influences various bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate, promoting a state of calm and relaxation.

Stimulation of the vagus nerve activates the body’s relaxation response, reducing stress and anxiety levels. It achieves this by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, thereby mitigating the effects of stress. Research has shown that a higher vagal tone, which indicates a body’s ability to relax quickly after stress, is associated with greater emotional regulation, reduced risk of heart diseases, and improved overall well-being.

Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can effectively stimulate the vagus nerve, enhancing its function and contributing to stress resilience. By fostering a healthy vagal tone, individuals can improve their stress management capabilities, leading to better physical and mental health outcomes.


Stress is like a two-sided coin. On one hand, it can boost our abilities to ace a big event, yet an overload can cause us to break down. It’s a common part of life that tests our resilience.

The key is maintaining a balance. Too much stress can lead to health issues, so it’s vital to control it effectively. To overcome stress, various techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and physical exercise can be used.


  1. Stress – Every Mind Matters – NHS (www.nhs.uk)[]
  2. Stress (who.int)[]