Defining and Identifying Stress

Stress, whether it is from job pressures, personal commitments, our own inner thoughts and struggles or other sources, is an unavoidable part of life.  Most of us are aware that we should have less of it, but we really do not know how to manage it. The key is just that, learning to manage stress, not the elimination of it unless it is causing direct, immediate harm to one’s body.

Can you recognize the changes that occur in your body when you are feeling stressed?  Can you identify the symptoms of too much stress? Do you have strategies that allow you to deal with that stress effectively? Do you know how nutrition, exercise and a strong support system help us deal with stress? Do you feel you are doing everything possible to cope with your stress?  If you answered NO to one or more of these questions, please continue reading.

Stress is a physical, psychological or emotional response to a particular stimulus, situation or event in a person’s life.  There are two types of stress:

  • Good Stress: In 1974, Richard Lazarus coined the term “eustress” to define types of stress that are healthy.  This type of stress has positive implications and gives you a feeling of fulfillment. Most people thrive on situations that induce fulfillment.  Winning a race, doing a great job on a challenging project, persuading someone to see your side and falling in love are examples of eustress.
  • Bad Stress: This type of stress has negative implications and leads to feelings of uneasiness. Bad stress describes the type of feelings that most of us identify as stress and try to overcome.


Acute stress is stress that comes on suddenly. The stressors that cause it are rarely a mystery. They are usually obvious and abrupt events that happen in a person’s life and tend to be temporary.  Acute stress is associated with the fight – or – flight response, which is the human tendency either to control or to flee an immediate threat. Examples of acute stressors include:

  1. A car accident
  2. Loss of a job
  3. Death of a loved one


Episodic acute stress displays the same characteristics as acute stress but has different causes. The triggers of episodic stress are recurrent. This type of stress is most common among people who live hectic and chaotic lives. Examples of episodic acute stressors include:

  1. Chronic lateness for work or social engagements
  2. A tendency to take on too many projects at once
  3. A hostile work environment


Chronic stress is constant and seemingly never ending. It is compounded daily and allows no sense of relief. Though chronic stress is usually brought on by family strife, financial hardship and/or a hostile living situation, something relatively insignificant yet consistent, such as traffic jams during a daily commute, can help to prolong this sense of powerlessness. Some examples of chronic stress include:

  1. Constant care of an ill or elderly family member
  2. Bullies at school
  3. Long-term unemployment

The amount of stress that we experience depends on how much stress we have, how long we have it and how we are able to manage it.

  • According to Peter Hansen, best-selling author of several books about stress, work and the workplace causes most of our stress.
  • According to the Holmes-Rahe stress scale, the greatest single stressors come from our personal lives.


Take a moment and total the life change units that have happened to you in the past 24 months.

Life Event (During Past 24 months)

Life Change Units



Begin or end school


Business readjustment


Change in church activities


Change in eating habits


Change in financial state


Change in health of family member


Change in living conditions


Change in number of arguments with spouse


Change in number of family get-togethers


Change in recreation


Change in residence


Change in responsibilities at work


Change in schools


Change in sleeping habits


Change in social activities


Change in work hours or conditions


Change to a different line of work




Death of a close friend


Death of a close family member


Death of a spouse




Fired at work


Foreclosure of mortgage or loan


Gain of a new family member




Marital reconciliation


Marital separation




Minor violation of the law


Mortgage or loan more than $50,000


Outstanding personal achievement


Partner begins or stops work


Personal injury or illness






Revision of personal habits


Sexual difficulties


Son or daughter leaving home


Trouble with boss


Trouble with in-laws











 What Does It Mean?

The more changes you have, the more likely you are to get sick.  Of those people with over 300 Life Change Units, almost 90% get sick in the near future; with 150 to 299 Life Change Units, about 50% get sick in the near future; and with less than 150 Life Change Units, only about 30% get sick in the near future.

Source: Holmes & Rahe, 1967, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol. 11



Many things can invite stress into your life. Everyone experiences unsettling events in their lives, but the particular causes and the extent to which different people experience the resulting stress varies from one person to another. No matter where stress comes from, if the short-term effects occur intensely and frequently, the long-term costs are the same – the quality of your life suffers. On the other hand, if you increase and fine tune your coping skills, your life and health actually improve.

To alleviate stress, it is important first to identify the possible stressors or triggers. The triggers fall into three categories: frustrations, conflicts and pressures.


Frustrations are obstacles, barriers or anything that keeps you from achieving your goals.  Limitations and the inability to overcome or accept them can put intense strain on your mental and emotional state. Frustrations that lead to stress can be internal or external.

Internal frustrations are characteristics that you may perceive as limitations within yourself. Some examples include:

  1. Age
  2. Physical handicaps
  3. Mental illness
  4. Shyness

External frustrations are obstacles that occur outside of you. You may feel that they hold you back from your goals. Some examples of external frustrations are:

  1. Age discrimination
  2. Abuse
  3. Divorce
  4. Inability to find a job


Moral dilemmas and decisions that call you to consult your conscience are typical conflict triggers. Conflicts leading to stress may include:

  1. Involvement in a combative marriage
  2. Friction with a coworker
  3. The prospect of making a tough or significant decision
  4. Being in the middle of an argument between friends


You are bound to experience pressures in life that lead to stress.  Pressures can be either internal or external. The goals that you attempt to achieve and the bar that you set for yourself can be just as stressful as any work deadline.

Internal pressures are the burdens you put on yourself so that you can live up to your own standards or perceptions of yourself. Some examples include:

  1. An attempt to lose weight
  2. The search for the perfect mate
  3. The quest for a promotion at work
  4. The desire to maintain high grades in school

External pressures are situations that the world or another influence puts upon you.  Some examples include:

  1. Bills
  2. Work obligations
  3. Social responsibilities
  4. Child rearing

Research tells us that men and women react differently to stress and that differing situations create their stress.  For example, one study done at the University of Alberta found that women wake in the morning with their lowest stress levels. These levels climb as they rush around the house getting everyone ready for work and school.  Stress levels rise until they get to work, but their stress levels begin to drop back a bit. Their stress levels slowly rise again during the day and continue to rise as they come home and look after children, dinner and household chores. A woman’s stress levels usually do not drop again until they are ready for bed.

Men, on the other hand, awaken with lower stress levels, usually lower than their spouse’s stress levels. Their stress levels do not rise significantly until the drive to work.  Then levels begin a slow climb that continues throughout their day.  However, as they leave work, their stress levels begin to drop and continue dropping after they arrive home.  Generally they go to bed with low stress levels.

This is a generalized version of what happens to stress levels with each gender and of course there are variations of this scenario:  women without children, high pressure jobs, men whose stress levels begin to rise the minute their feet hit the floor in the morning and who are in demand until the end of the day.  



Stress is the number one health problem in the world today!

The effects of stress are numerous and can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. These effects can be divided into four general categories: emotional, physical, psychological and behavioral.


Probably the most obvious effect on stress is the havoc it can wreak on your emotions. When you are stressed about something, it can be hard to think about anything else. Stress can cause many unpleasant emotional responses, such as:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Anger
  4. Resentment


Because your mental state has such a profound influence on your overall well-being, it is not surprising that stress can have physical effects. The emotions and psychological wear and tear naturally makes its way to your body. Some common physical symptoms of stress are:

  1. Headaches
  2. Fatigue
  3. High blood pressure
  4. Hives


When you are stressed out and psychologically clouded with worry or tension, it can become difficult to focus.  If your stress takes up so much of your consciousness that it edges out your typical sense and outlook, your mind can become overloaded. This can lead to:

  1. Memory problems
  2. Difficulty making decisions
  3. The desire to escape or run away
  4. Loss of concentration


If you are having a hard time understanding your stress and how to treat it, noticeable effects on your behavior can follow.  These behavioral changes can come on so slowly that you may not even notice an unhealthy pattern emerging. Behavioral effects of stress include:

  1. Excessive or inadequate sleep
  2. Alcohol and/or drug abuse
  3. Loss of temper
  4. Lack of interest in your favorite hobbies or activities

Stress is about attitude. Stress alone does not cause illness. Stress is neutral until it lands on us.

Stress is about power. Stress is an equal opportunity opponent.  Stress affects people of every age and every culture, regardless of whether you are male or female. 

Stress is about self-esteem. When our self-esteem is high, we feel more powerful and therefore less stressed. When our self-esteem is low, we feel like we have no power to make any changes and that can cause us more stress. 

Stress is about change.  Even if we do not like the situation we find ourselves in, if we are familiar with being in that situation, or if we feel that at least we know what will happen when we are in this situation, we find it less stressful than we think it might be making changes and stepping into the unknown. 

Your attitudes and beliefs about any potentially stressful situation or event determine how much stress you experience. By changing the way you look at a potentially stressful situation, you can change the way you emotionally react to that situation. The pioneering work of Drs. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck are especially important. An important secret of stress management is acknowledging and understanding how you create your stress and knowing how to change that thinking.


ABC Approach

  • A is the Activating event or potentially stressful situation
  • B is your Beliefs, thoughts or perceptions about A.
  • C is the emotional Consequences or stress that results from holding these beliefs.

A potentially stressful situation → your perceptions → your stress (or lack of)

The stress sequence looks something like this:

A → B → C

Having to wait → my thoughts about the waiting → potential stress

What we choose to do about stress determines how it will affect us!  You can control the amount of stress you feel.


Source: Elkin, PhD., Allen. Stress Management for Dummies, Wiley Publishing, Inc. (New York): 28-29 (1999)