What is Stress?

Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we learn about stress, what it means to feel stressed, and why is it important that the body appropriately responds to stress.

It’s time to talk about stress. 

You have definitely heard about or experienced stress throughout your life.

 “Stress” has a bad reputation. It’s synonymous with pressure, chaos, and uncertainty.

 “Stress” is commonly used to explain many and very different experiences day to day. When you say “I’m stressed,” it can mean any number of different things. 

In many ways, stress deserves its bad reputation. Stress can have a number of negative effects on the brain and body, thus affecting our overall health and wellbeing. 

From a scientific perspective, however, stress is neutral–when in small doses.

At its core, stress is simply an increase in demand on any number of systems in the brain and body. 

For example, sitting down requires less exertion of energy than walking. Walking is less stressful for the body than running, playing football, or cleaning the house standing up. But those activities that place increased demand on physiological or psychological systems can be considered stress. 

Importantly, the stress response–what our brains and bodies go through in response to stress–involves the regulation of our various systems to meet that increased demand. We will talk about that more later. 

Stress may be caused by something threatening, such as a dangerous animal in front of us. Or, it can be caused by something purely in our minds, like a deadline for a project. It is critical that we establish from the beginning that “stress” in the brain and body can be a response to things both real and imagined.

In many ways, a mental stress that exists only in the mind produces the same response in the body as a literal physical stress or threat to our safety. 

In other words, the stress of an approaching deadline of a project may feel similar to the stress caused by a threat to your identity which may feel similar to the stress caused by an encounter with a dangerous animal. 

It is important to remember that all forms of stress require and recruit increased activities from various physiological and psychological systems, and both tangible physical stress or imagined, purely mental stress activate similar processes in the body. We will talk soon in detail about what exactly that stress response process looks like in the body.