What is Stress?

By Jay T. Wiles - May 12, 2022

By Jay T. Wiles, BCB, BCB-HRV

Stress is a ubiquitous term. Just walk down your local grocery aisle and you are going to be inundated with the term and proposed methods for helping in every tabloid. Arguably, the most interesting aspect of this five-letter word is that it is often used in everyday conversation without thought as to what it actually means. Like anything in life, you can become desensitized to a word the more you use it and hear it. When we say “stress”, what are we actually referring to? A physiological experience? Psychological experience? Both? This article is going to tackle the immense subject-matter of stress. What it is, how it manifests, and what can you do about it.

First things first, we cannot ignore the significant, and arguably universal, impact that stress has had on every individual. According to The American Institute of Stress (2021), 77% report that stress affects their physical health. They have even deemed it as, “America’s number one health problem.” It is a problem that affects adults, families, teens, children, seniors, or anyone with a breath, for that matter. If stress is not the root cause of ailment, it will certainly exacerbate symptoms and reduce positive outcomes. If you haven’t gotten the picture yet, it’s a serious problem. The crazy thing is, it is one that is a problem that is talked about, but still somewhat swept under the rug.

77% of people report that stress affects their physical health.

So, what is stress? As mentioned before, because of the ubiquity of the term there have been many proposed definitions throughout the years. While a consolidated and universal definition has not been agreed upon, we certainly know, from research, the predominant characteristics of so-called stress. A simple, yet still confusing definition for stress is that it refers to the body’s response to change in stimuli or a stressor(s). Let’s parse this out: similar to the experience of anxiety, many individuals consider stress to be a state or experience that is associated with a person’s perceived inability or limited resources to take on certain demands—note that this is more consistent with the psychological definition of stress. When our perceived capacity to utilize appropriate resources to handle or take on demands is diminished, this can result in the experience of stress. Remember that stress can take many forms. It might even be appropriate to conceptualize stress as somewhat of a shape-shifter. It is also quite important to differentiate between the experience of stress and identified stressors. A stressor is the cause agent or thing that then results in emotional tension. Obviously, stressors can differ from person to person. One person’s stressor could be the other’s joy. Think public speaking: there are some individuals who absolutely relish the opportunity to speak in public, while others tremble in fear of the thought.

One of the unfortunate things that we have done is demonize stress and the human stress response. This is a huge mistake, as stress primarily serves the purpose of helping, not harming. Please remember… stress, at its core, is not intended to hinder, but to provide as a guide. From an evolutionary perspective, stress is a signal, a warning sign, but can also provide a means of motivation. While it may be the warning signal to help save you from a threat, it may also serve as a means to increase productivity and help you to more efficiently/effectively accomplish your goal. Stress can be your friend. Stress is your guardian. Stress can be your absolute worst enemy. Does that mean we can choose the direction of its path? A path of influence? Or a path of destruction? Short answer…yes and yes, but it is nuanced—as is everything in health, physiology, and psychology…

Eustress vs. Distress…and how to harness both

As mentioned before, stress is not uniform, but is universal. If you take anything from this article, please do not think that stress has to be either good or bad. It is both. Confusing, right? Let’s clear this up a bit by turning our attention to two common terms in the field of stress research and psychophysiology. I am referring to the concepts of eustress and distress.

Let’s start with the latter, as this is more commonly identified (and researched for that matter) definition of stress. Distress is thought to be a form of stress that results in a negative impact on the individual. This is loosely defined, but covers a lot of ground. For instance, distress can impact one’s physical, mental, cognitive, relational, spiritual health. To provide a little more context, here is a breakdown of how distress manifests:

Relational vs Physical vs Mental/Emotional/Cognitive

Distress tends to be a state that halts progress and subsequent success. It is the experience that inhibits forward movement and relinquishes our ability to thrive and perform. While this is not always the case, it does characterize the predominant features of stress.

Now that we have a working definition of distress, let’s talk about the antithesis: eustress. It is not that eustress and distress operate on a linear plot, like a see-saw; that when one goes up the other comes down. It does not work that way. These are two separate constructs that can be opposing or unified/collaborative. In general, they operate differently. Eustress is the stress that motivates, moves us forward, allows for flow, and gives us drive to perform. A prime example of this is in athletics. Professional athletes will tell you that they operate best out of a heightened stress state–but the Goldilocks principle applies here. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. That is what eustress is. It is the type of stress that pushes and motivates change. Other examples of eustress can be exercise, social events, and maybe even work deadlines.

Eustress tends to be very personalized. This goes back to the idea that one person’s joy is the other’s poison. Have you ever heard someone say they work best under pressure? That is eustress. A lot of high-performing executives thrive under intensive deadlines to produce their best work. For others, when they experience a deadline for work, they implode…or explode. It is all about the frame of reference and how you choose to adapt to the event. Yes, I used the word “choose”—it is a loaded statement, but choice is a large variable in how stress affects you.

Assessing and Evaluating Your Experience of Stress

Now that I have either pushed you away or motivated you with that last statement, I want to examine the question of how you can tell if a stressor is manifesting as distress or eustress. The funny thing is, most people do not take the time to identify or tell the difference, or they get too busy and caught up in the idea that everything is painful. Ever met anyone like this? Exercise is painful. Socializing is painful. Work is painful. Yes, this is psychological and physical pain. It is all viewed from a shaded lens of distress and therefore life is distress…and therefore “I am distressed.” See how the vicious cycle becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy? So, do you know anyone? Maybe the handsome person you see in the mirror?

Regardless, we all have the opportunity to increase our level of self-awareness and learn to self-regulate. Self-awareness is identifying how stress is manifesting, how it is impacting your mental and physical health, and how it might be destroying your social relationships. It may be that everything you experience is solely through the lens of distress. What if you viewed everything from the lens of eustress? Crazy, I know, but bear with me. Eustress utilizes the Goldilocks rule, but what if we self-sabotage to drive what should be eustress into the domain of distress? What if we like to take pity on ourselves…or even have others pity us by framing our interaction and experience with stressors in the camp of distress. Do you think that might impact your overall well-being? Of course it would!

I am not trying to convince you that every encounter of stress has to be used to motivate you for change. Sometimes life throws us massive curveballs. A death in the family, divorce, poverty, inequality, etc., these things are tough. But what if there is some level of personal molding and enhancement that can be had in every situation? I’ll let you be the judge.

In conclusion: it has not been stated, but stress is here and it is not going anywhere. It is a natural, unavoidable, and necessary part of life. Both for good and bad, stress is going to play an inevitable role in your life. Will you harness every experience as negative and self-sabotage? Or will you strike while the iron is hot and allow stress to be used in more beneficial ways?

Featured Posts:

Jay T. Wiles headshot

Jay T. Wiles

Dr. Jay T. Wiles is a clinical health psychologist, currently working as the Health Behavior Coordinator at WJB Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, SC and the Greenville Outpatient VA Clinic. He has specialized training in health behavior coaching, health assessment, nutritional interventions for mental and physical health, motivational interviewing, applied psychophysiology, and consultation. Dr. Wiles works as a consultant for companies/organizations, practitioners, and individual patients on nutritional psychology, health behavior change, applied psychophysiology, and health promotion/disease prevention via complementary and integrative practices. He is also board certified in taiji for rehabilitation.

Is a Career in Acupuncture Right for You? Take The Career Readiness Quiz