What is Stress?

What is stress?

It may seem like a rather odd question - after all, you know when you are stressed, you can feel it but… well what is stress, exactly?

I wanted to know the answer so I asked an expert, Anne Dale. Anne has been helping people to de-stress in various ways for over 30 years, having started out in the 1970's teaching yoga.

Over the years she has added other strings to her bow such as psychotherapy (including hypnosis and NLP), and has always been a teacher of psychology in some form or other, to groups of adults in a variety of settings.

Now semi-retired, Anne is still very active in her local U3A (University of the Third Age), and regularly leads groups at Cortijo Romero, specialising in stress and relaxation, as well as assertiveness and managing change.

(Anne also happens to be my mum - which is a good thing, not least because it’s handy having such an expert in the family)

What is Stress?


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of stress is:

"a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstance."

Anne broadly agrees with this definition, and she add that to fully understand what is stress you need to look further than “just” mental or emotional strain.

To fully understand the effects stress can have on us you can’t ignore the now-established fact that stress, especially if it becomes chronic, can contribute to illness.

This is because many of the body’s systems (including the autonomic nervous system, which regulates function of your heart, lungs, digestive system and so) are negatively affected by the main stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol.

The physiological effects of stress can be working away without your knowledge for some time before any physical symptoms of stress become apparent – although for many of us, it’s the raised blood pressure or the twinges of angina that finally give us the wake-up call that we need to take action and get to grips with what is stress ing us in our lives.

Good Stress and Bad Stress


In her work Anne distinguishes between “stress” and “dis-stress”, the latter being what happens when the imbalance persists for too long and your system (in it’s widest sense – physical, psychological, emotional) simply can’t cope and breaks down in some way.

Some stress is even seen good for us. Eustress” is the term used to describe the sort of positively stimulating stress that motivates us to run that marathon, finish that book, or get up on stage to sing our song.

We need a certain amount of this type of stress to function at our best. Some stress is both natural and inevitable, and also good for us because it acts as a stimulus to action. Pretty much anything could be a “good stressor” or a "bad stressor", depending on how we perceive it and what else is going on for us.

This diagram shows what is stress and what is eustress at different levels:



Reading the curve from the left, if we don't have enough positive stress or stimulation, we can be bored and understimulated, which is not good for us.

As we increase the amount of good stress in our lives, it stimulates us into action, giving us energy and focus, and as we hit the optimum level of good stress or eustress (the green area) for ourselves, we move into peak performance - "The Zone", as athletes know it.

However, if you let this get out of balance and what's going on is negative, or there is simply too much going on for us (the red area), then we will begin to get tired and eventually exhausted. If this is not remedied soon various systems - physical, emotional, health - start to break down, and pretty soon we find ourselves ill in one way or another, or just simply overwhelmed.

When this happens it is useful to have some techniques to hand for quick stress relief, such as heart math, eft tapping, yoga, meditation and so on.

For example, you know you need to earn an income, but most of us want it meet higher needs than that as well. We all have fundamental human needs for things such as having a sense of purpose and achievement, of making a difference, a sense that we are winning or that we belong to something important. Whatever it is for us personally, as long as work is meeting some (or if we are really lucky, all!) of those related needs, it's going to be a pretty positive experience.

But if that's not the case for you, and work is a source of too much negative stress or simple overload... then you will start to suffer from work related stress. It may be time to take stock and see what if any of your higher human needs are being met alongside the more fundamental ones, such as keeping a roof over your head, paying the bills and feeding yourself and your loved ones, and having some fun along the way.

What is stress for me may be a thrill for you..


What is stress ful for one person may be a welcome challenge to another.

For example for some people having a deadline to meet at work that stimulates you to focus your thoughts and efforts on getting the job done, is a positive, motivating thing – a “good stressor/demand”.

For others – indeed for many of us at certain times, for example when our total load of stress is high – a deadline can feel like negative stress.

Therefore what is stress ful for you, and how you are feeling about your life at any given time, depends on how that balance is working or not working in your life and could be quite different from someone else’s.

The key thing is that with anything in our lives bringing some stress that there is a clear payoff for us – the high, the sense of accomplishment, the exhilaration, the promotion etc. When things feel like onerous demands, the benefits are much harder to see! So it is really important to understand what is stress for you, and what helps you to cope.

It's a very personal thing.

It's all about balance


I wondered how you know when you have slipped from “good stress/eustress” into bad stress, or “dis-stress”.

Anne emphasised that in order to understand how this works in your own life, you need to understand the balance between the demands on us – including the demands we place on ourselves, sometimes without knowing it – and the resources we have to deal with those demands.

We manage the demands that life places on us by using our resources – our intelligence, our ability to problem solve, our support networks, and so on.

When this is a good balance - including when it is pushing us just a little beyond our comfort zone, encouraging us to grow whist remaining manageable - we are much more likely to experience many of the things in our lives as pleasures and welcome stimulants. But if things are seriously out of balance, they can suddenly feel all too much.

Things start to go wrong when the demands on us exceed the resources we have at our disposal to cope with them.

Almost all of us will have the experience at times in our lives of this balance swinging too far the wrong way, so that we feel overwhelmed by our lives – and when this happens, typically we will feel overwhelmed by all of it, including many of the parts we usually enjoy.

So we snap at our children and our partners, feel negative about work, turn down invitations from friends, and so on.

This is normal, to the extent that we all experience it at times.

However if this state of affairs feels “normal” to you because it is happens so regularly, that is probably not doing you, your health or your relationships much good.

When you start to look at the balance of demands and resources in your life you will get a clearer picture of what is stress for you, how you can manage it and reduce it’s negative effects.

Use your Resources


We all have resources that we use all the time. Anne uses the term to mean anything that you are able to make use of - so that could be a practical skill, or your money/business/job etc (your financial & income-generating resources), or your personal characteristics, your social and family networks, and so on.

Personal resources


We use our intelligence, our ability to solve problems and our communications skills to help us navigate our way through the days of our lives.

Sometimes it is specific skills that help us. Maybe it’s your ability to shut out all distractions for a period of time and focus on a particular task that needs to be done, or you are good at languages so you know you’ll be able to learn the new one you need for the job you want to go for.

Perhaps you have learnt to get into a positive state of mind so that when a car pulls out in front of you during rush hour, you can stay calm and focused, and perhaps even find something in the experience to be grateful for.

Or maybe it's the years of training in kung fu that enable you to fight off that mugger, or the positive parenting skills you learnt from your own parents, that help you deal with fractious kids at bedtime (or should that be the other way round?).

Whatever it is, it’s important to be aware that you can learn new skills and abilities for dealing with stresses that add to your innate resources, the things that are part of you. There are many approaches to developing new skills, and this website aims, over time, to cover many of them.

Practical resources


Other resources are practical things that are not strictly speaking part of ourselves, but which are still ours to call on – our money, our home, our car etc.

It’s a lot easier to deal with an unexpected bill if you have a reserve in a savings account for such eventualities, or to rush to the bedside of a sick friend or relative hundreds of miles away if you have transport options, together with the money to pay for them. Similarly, having somewhere decent to live with enough space to do what you need to do, and be who you want to be, is fundamental to our sense of wellbeing.

These things matter, and in the modern world such practical resources make things easier, and *can* seem essential. We all know that money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a degree of stress-relieving useful things - just ask someone scraping by below the poverty line in austerity Britain.

Social resources


Then there are our social resources.

Anne says the research shows that having the right social support is critical for our ability to cope when additional demands push us to the limit of our personal resources.

Social support does not have to mean leaning on other people – although it can. It can simply be that having an active social life makes you feel more alive, more connected, more engaged with the world. Which is very good for you. Having a partner, friends, family, work and wider social networks that you can call on at times of difficulty helps diffuse our stress and to get new perspectives on our situation.

Perhaps you have:

  • Friends you can go on a good night out with, to have fun, play sport with, etc.
  • A particular friend or friends you can share your troubles with (and yes, venting is allowed – as long as you don’t wallow in it for too long, and you move on to problem solving).
  • Family that you spend quality time with on a regular basis, giving you a sense of stability and belonging
  • A network of colleagues who can give you advice and feedback on issues that come up at work and help you move things forward
  • A supportive partner that you work well with to manage your shared, busy lives.

Of course, we all differ in our needs for social support. Some people have very well-developed internal resources that enable them to cope well on their own for some, or even most of the time. Not everyone has or wants everything in the above list, and some don't have enough of it. What matters is having more or less the right level and types of support for ourselves, but sadly this isn't always the case.


If you feel you need more connections with people that meet your various needs – for fun, intimacy and connection, start small and be brave. Join that class, accept that invite - talk to that person at work or in the corner shop.

Rather than worry about what it might mean to say hello, go into it expecting to get something positive, however tiny, from each of those interactions - and you will!

And if you are feeling really brave, why not book yourself a holiday with other people, even people you don't know - you never know what or who you might find.


We are social animals, and when the chips are down we all need other people.

Sometimes, what is stressing us turns out to be our own belief system. Thinking that we can or ought to be able to cope on our own, is an internal demand that we place on ourselves that can become unhelpful if it prevents us from reaching out, or accepting help that is offered.

It's all about balance


Yes, I know I said that just a minute ago, but it bears repeating because it's true. Knowing what the experts say is one thing, but knowing what is stress for yourself is about understanding your personal balance in two areas:

  • The demands on you, and
  • The resources you have for dealing with those demands.

Getting that balance right is crucial for understanding what is stress for you, and ensuring you can manage it in healthy and even empowering ways.

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