Stress 101 – What actually is stress?

Stress, Therapy

Even amongst scientists, the word “stress” has no single definition. Sometimes people use ‘stress’ to describe what’s going on inside us (thoughts, emotions, and physical responses) and sometimes they use it to describe the problems we face (anything from daily irritations to major life challenges[footnote]The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it)” by Kelly McGonigal[/footnote] [footnote] Oxford Dictionary definition of “stress”[/footnote].

How can we explain stress when there’s no single definition?

Firstly we can choose to use more specific language. I (and some other professionals) only use the word “stress” to refer to something that goes on inside us (thoughts, emotions, and physical responses). To refer to the problems we face, and anything else that seems to cause stress, we use the word “stressor”.

This article is about stress, not about stressors.


How can we understand stress when we have no single definition for it? I think we can turn to the science of physics for inspiration, to help us get around this problem.

As of 2018, there is not a perfect understanding of fundamental physics. Instead there are two different models for understanding the universe: Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. Neither model perfectly explains everything in nature, and they clash at times – but physicists can switch between the two models, using the most appropriate model for a given task. It’s an effective approach until a unified model can be developed.


Similarly, from the perspective of understanding stress and stress-related issues, I switch between two different models of stress. These are:

  • The ‘stress response’ model of stress
  • The ‘unconscious stress’ model of stress

Each model can be used for understanding and treating different stress-related issues. Until research into stress-related issues improves, this is the best approach I’ve come across to date.

(Note: If I use the term “stress” without specifying which model of stress I’m referring to, it means that either of the two models of stress might apply.)


The ‘stress response’ model of stress

A stress response is a type of physiological response in the body and brain, which includes hormonal and neurological changes.

A stress response’s purpose is to improve our chances of surviving and thriving in different situations, and there are different types of stress responses for different situations.

  • Dangerous situations. In these situations a “fight or flight” type stress response occurs.[footnote]In the past it was often assumed all stress was a “fight or flight” response – this view has been outdated by more recent research.[/footnote]
  • Challenging situations. Here, a “challenge response” occurs.
  • Situations that require us to support other people. A “tend and befriend response” occurs here.

There are measurable physiological differences between the three major types of stress response, and some are healthier and more performance enhancing than others[footnote]Strictly speaking there are also ‘grey areas’ between these three major types of response; it’s a sliding scale.[/footnote]. So for simplicity we can generalise stress responses as either “performance enhancing” or “performance impairing”; and either “healthy” or “unhealthy”.


One aspect of modern stress and anxiety therapy is ‘optimising’ a person’s stress, so they experience healthier and more performance-enhancing stress responses.

Stress responses generally include physiological changes such as:

  • Hormonal: A spike in stress hormones including adrenaline, cortisol, oxytocin[footnote]Yes, oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ – McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it) (p. 52). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition. [/footnote].
  • Heightened sympathetic nervous system activation: An increase in heart rate, breathing faster, muscles tensing, etc.
  • Digestion and other non-emergency physical functions slow or stop.
  • Increasing energy reserves and mobilizing the immune system.


Depending on the type and intensity of the stress response, different effects may occur:Sometimes stress responses are intense: For example if someone is threatened with violence, they’ll probably experience a very strong stress response, and the effects will be obvious and powerful. Other times they can be more subtle (and perhaps in some cases barely noticeable).

  • Feeling ‘restless’, ‘shaky’, a ‘nervous energy’ etc.
  • We may physically shake as blood pressure increases in our arms and legs.
  • A high heart rate, which might be felt pounding in one’s chest, and may cause a ‘shaky’ voice. Heart palpitations might also occur.
  • Lightheadedness, and/or ‘shortness of breath’ – feeling like you need to breathe more air. (Counter-intuitively, these symptoms are often a result of hyperventilation, which is breathing too much air.)
  • Feeling sudden heat or cold sensations
  • Dry mouth
  • Upset stomach, including the ‘butterflies in your stomach’ feeling
  • We might get the urge to go to the toilet
  • Emotional hijacking (explained later)
  • Etc.


How can we use the ‘stress response’ model of stress?

This model explains some stress-related phenomena very effectively.

Phobias and fears such as public speaking are clearly examples of acute stress responses. Anxiety and panic attack episodes are also stress responses. And when you’re working to a tight deadline in a stressful job, you’re likely to experience numerous stress responses during the process.

Researchers focussed on stress responses have also identified some excellent ways to improve our performance and health during stress responses – most notably, stress mindsets.


However, some other stress-related issues aren’t so effectively explained by this model. Take symptoms like ‘stress rolling’ (taking out your stress on others), or chronic pain – anecdotally, it seems that these symptoms can occur even when we aren’t experiencing a stress response (at least not a noticeable one). Are stress responses linked to these symptoms? If so, how? Research is ongoing[footnote]For example regarding how chronic pain overlaps with stress responses:[/footnote], but for now I do not find the stress response model useful for understanding or treating these kinds of symptoms.

Furthermore, this model alone doesn’t capture why irrational phobias and fears, anxiety and panic attacks occur in the first place – nor does it offer any treatments to actually stop them from occurring in future. Nor does it offer some of the most powerful treatments for chronic pain or other chronic health issues.


To learn more about the stress response model and associated treatments I recommend “The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal (2015).


The ‘unconscious stress’ model of stress

The human brain constantly performs very fast unconscious cognition, totally outside of our conscious awareness – much like a supercomputer running silently in our head.

It uses our memories to identify our surroundings, builds an ever-changing perception of the world around us, manages our mind and body’s functioning and more, without us consciously knowing what it’s doing. This is commonly described as our “unconscious mind” (also known as our “subconscious”). (An accessible and enjoyable book to learn more about this is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.)


What is clear through years of practitioners’ experience is that unconscious issues of various kinds can cause stress and anxiety related symptoms – and that by improving or resolving such unconscious issues, the symptoms can also be reduced and overcome.


For example, through years of experience John Sarno MD – and many other Medical Doctors who worked alongside him – found the following issues are common causes of stress-related symptoms like chronic pain and others (and that therapy around such issues could mitigate the symptoms)[footnote]Sarno, John E. The Divided Mind p143[/footnote]:

  • Anger, hurt, emotional pain, and sadness generated in childhood (note, this does not only apply to abusive childhoods)
  • Certain personality traits such as perfectionism, being overly conscientious and others
  • Anything in your life that represents pressure or responsibility
  • Any big problems that are going on in your life
  • And more.

Sarno described these as issues as “repressed – you don’t feel them, you don’t know they are there”; they’re unconscious. Many other practitioners describe the same thing in their own language.


Anecdotally, many practitioners have recognised these kinds of “unconscious stresses” can cause myriad health issues, and many references to this phenomenon can be found in traditional health beliefs and practices. Modern medicine is beginning to explain how this might occur: Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI, or PNEI) is exploring how psychological processes affect our nervous system, endocrine system and immune system – some would say it’s beginning to explain how the ‘mindbody connection’ works.


Because unconscious stresses are outside of our conscious awareness, the symptoms they cause are frequently misattributed to a different cause. For example, a person might have significant unresolved unconscious stresses relating to their childhood – but this is totally unconscious, so instead they might blame their stress-related symptoms on their job. This might be partly true, but they may be missing the primary cause of their symptoms.

Medical practitioners might also misattribute symptoms caused by unconscious stresses to another issue. Sarno describes how easily a medical practitioner could misattribute psychogenic chronic back pain to a benign physical issue (e.g. a bulging spinal disk): Unfortunately such a diagnosis might cause a patient to limit physical activity, take medication, or even undergo spinal surgery, when they actually required psychological therapy to treat their unconscious stress.[footnote]Sarno, John E. The Divided Mind[/footnote]


How can we use the ‘unconscious stress’ model of stress?

Various theories and models attempt to explain how unconscious stresses cause stress-related symptoms, but the truth is we don’t yet know how or why this happens.

Fortunately, we don’t need to understand exactly how this works to be able to treat it effectively. The unconscious stress model allows us to explore potential unconscious issues which are known to be linked to stress-related symptoms, and then treat them as efficiently as possible.


Summarising stress

When most people say ‘stress’, they’re using it as a kind of non-specific ‘filler word’ to describe various phenomena that we don’t yet fully understand.

Until our understanding improves, we can use two models interchangeably as an effective way to think about stress: stress responses (of various types), and unconscious stress. These two kinds of stress may be directly related, but we don’t currently know exactly how.

The good news is we don’t need to understand everything about how stress works in order to treat it powerfully and effectively. Get my free download Overcome anxiety & stress by changing how your mind works to start your treatment immediately.

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