Stress: Understanding its Impact on Mind and Body

woman holding her head while working at a computer

Picture this: horns honking angrily in traffic, a smartphone buzzing with notifications, a calendar packed with deadlines, and a sense of dread about the day’s endless to-do list.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone! Chronic stress has become so normalized in our modern world that many of us view it as an inevitable part of daily life. We’re often steeped in social pressures, cultural expectations, and information exposures that keep us stressed out, including:

Americans have been hit particularly hard by the chronic stress epidemic. In fact, American stress levels are 20% higher than the global average, making America one of the most stressed-out countries in the world. [1] According to the American Psychological Association, 34% of Americans report that stress is “completely overwhelming” on most days, while 76% report that they’ve experienced health impacts from stress during the past month. [2]

However, just because chronic stress is so widespread doesn’t mean it’s necessary to live with it. And while we tend to think of stress as one uniform experience, stress actually occurs in a variety of forms, only some of which cause harm.

In this article, we’ll be looking at:

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s natural reaction to situations it perceives as threatening or challenging. Think of it as an alarm system that activates when you’re confronted with something your brain thinks you need to deal with quickly: the result is a complex cascade of hormones, brain signals, and physiological changes all geared towards helping you cope with the situation. [3]

However, not all stress is created equal! While our body’s wired-in stress response is useful for tackling genuinely dangerous situations (think: an intruder breaking in, a bear lumbering towards us, or a car about to hit ours on the freeway), it becomes a problem when it carries on unresolved—keeping our bodies locked in physiological states that were intended to be only temporary. [4]

Importantly, stress can be divided into two distinct categories, based on whether it’s short-term (acute) or ongoing (chronic).

Acute vs. chronic stress

Acute stress is an adaptive, immediate reaction to a specific event or situation. It’s a sudden burst of stress that comes and goes relatively quickly, often serving an important role in our safety and survival. [5]

Chronic stress is persistent, lingering stress that extends beyond a specific immediate threat. It results in prolonged activation of stress hormones like cortisol, negatively affecting our health over time. [5]

Some examples of acute stressors include:

  1. Interviewing for a job
  2. Having an argument with a loved one
  3. Giving a presentation
  4. Taking a test
  5. Losing an essential item (like your phone or wallet)
  6. Running late for work
  7. Getting stuck in a traffic jam
  8. Facing an accident or injury
  9. Being the victim of a crime
  10. Encountering a natural disaster, such as a fire or earthquake

Some examples of chronic stressors include:

  1. A dissatisfying career
  2. A dysfunctional marriage or home life
  3. An overly demanding job
  4. Long-term academic pressure
  5. Financial instability or poverty
  6. A poor work-life balance
  7. A dreaded long daily commute through traffic
  8. Having a chronic illness
  9. Living in a high-crime area
  10. Working in a dangerous profession or high-risk environment

Look at how the numbered items in those lists pair up, and you may notice some parallels. In general, acute and chronic stress can affect the same domains of life—from our job, to our relationships, to our finances, to our health, to our home, to our daily environment. What differentiates them is whether the stressor has a clear resolution, or persists long-term.

man and woman arguing

Eustress vs. distress

Stress can be further categorized based on whether it affects us in positive ways (eustress) or detrimental ways (distress).

Eustress refers to beneficial, motivational stress that brings feelings of excitement and anticipation. It’s sparked by challenges and situations we find rewarding—such as pursuing personal goals, taking on new projects, or venturing outside our comfort zone. While eustress still triggers the body’s stress response, it does so in a way that feels energizing and exciting.

By arousing our autonomic nervous system, eustress increases feelings of alertness while also enhancing our memory, focus, and learning capacity. [6]

Meanwhile, distress refers to stress that brings anticipation of loss or harm. It tends to feel overwhelming and uncontrollable, often leading to feelings of anxiety, sadness, or helplessness. [7] Distress can be caused by various factors such as past trauma, ongoing difficulties, or major life changes, and typically hinders our ability to function well.

Some examples of eustress include:

Some examples of distress include:

We don’t want to thwart our ability to feel acute stress, and we don’t want to rid our lives of eustress. However, chronic stress compromises our health and has become endemic to our modern lives.

The consequences of chronic stress

Although the body is well-adapted to bounce back from acute stress, chronic stress is an entirely different story.

Stress of any form brings increases in blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar levels, cortisol, sodium retention, immune activation, and inflammation. [3] On a short-term basis, these changes are helpful for increasing our alertness, focus, and responsiveness to potential threats—as well as our ability to heal from any wounds and injuries caused by those threats.

When stress persists without resolution, though, our bodies don’t fully return to a stable baseline, leading to a range of physical and psychological symptoms. [8] These include:

man sitting on bed holding head

Over time, a prolonged stress state begins increasing our risk of a number of health conditions, including:

In short, chronic stress can create damage that costs us years of our lives. It also takes a toll on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

However, there’s good news! While encountering stress is inevitable, suffering from it is not. There are a number of things we can do to both reduce the burden of stress in our lives, and improve our ability to cope with it. We’ll be diving into the strategies in the next post in this series.


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