Stressed? The confusing world of 'stress speak'

I’ve been studying stress for over a decade now, and something that frustrates me is the lack of clarity in articles, blogs, books etc when discussing stress.

Hardly any author or speaker starts off by defining what their interpretation of ‘stress’ is. 

I’ve lost count of the number of articles, books, blog posts, webinars on stress I’ve read or attended, where at some point I realised that the “stress” the author/speaker was referring to, was not what I thought they were talking about. 

For instance, most articles on stress are actually talking about chronic stress. In many articles  the words ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing, when they’re not. 

So, when I begin work with my stressed and anxious clients, I make sure to define what I mean by the words “stress” and “anxiety” so we’re all on the same page and they understand what I’m talking about.

Here are the definitions I use in my work:

Acute Stress

Acute Stress is an uncomfortable feeling we experience due to our Survival System identifying a real and present danger to our physical and/or emotional wellbeing. The dangerous event is happening now or is imminent. It could be for instance, a car about to collide with ours, a cut finger we’ve just inflicted on ourselves while chopping vegetables, a mugger with a knife demanding our wallet, our boss telling us we are being made redundant, having an argument with our partner. 

Once the danger has passed, our Rest and Digest Response is activated, the Stress Response switches off, and the feeling of acute stress dissipates and disappears. This could take a few minutes or few hours depending on the intensity of the Stress Response.

Anxiety  is an uncomfortable feeling we experience due to our Survival System identifying a risk (future danger) to our physical and/or emotional wellbeing. Once the risk has either been mitigated or no longer exists, the Stress Response switches off, our Rest and Digest Response is activated, and the feeling of anxiety dissipates and disappears.


The word ‘worry’ is commonly used interchangeably with anxiety, but they are not the same thing. Worry is a thought process that is a key part of our Survival System. It’s our mind’s way of identifying potential risks to our emotional and physical wellbeing. The risk we identify activates our Stress Response. We then feel anxiety.


Stressor – A stressor is a person, situation, or thing our Survival System has identified as a danger or risk to our physical and/or emotional wellbeing. A stressor can occur once, briefly, or we may be exposed to it over a longer period. Examples of chronic stressors, stressors that can keep the Stress Response continuously activated include being in a job you hate, being in an abusive relationship, caring for a sick or elderly relative, financial difficulty, going through a divorce, chronic illness, poverty, homelessness, loneliness.


A feeling is a combination of physical sensations and emotions. In the case of stress, the two most common emotions are fear and anger. In the case of anxiety, the fear can range from slight nervousness to a full-blown panic attack.


Pressure is a feeling, experienced in response to demands we accept from others and/or place on ourselves. Pressure is often misleadingly referred to as ‘good stress.’ Pressure is not stress but it is good in that it energises and motivates us to meet the challenge(s) we’re facing. We can experience pressure for long periods without any harm to our wellbeing, unlike chronic stress.

Excessive Pressure

Once we perceive we can no longer meet the accumulated demands we face, our Survival System identifies this as a threat and activates the Stress Response. We then feel Acute Stress. If the excessive pressure continues, the Stress Response will continue to be activated and this chronic, ongoing activation will cause the condition we call ‘chronic stress’.

Chronic stress is a physical state of being in which stress hormones have accumulated in our body because of the chronic activation of the Stress Response. Chronic stress is often referred to as ‘bad stress.’ Because chronic stress builds slowly, we can become conditioned to it and, like the frog in the slowly boiling pan of water, not recognize we are in trouble. Because of the conditioning we can treat the symptoms that chronic stress produces as normal. 

However, unless we take action to stop experiencing it, chronic stress can continue for weeks, months, years, wreaking havoc on our mind and body. It can lead to high blood sugar, increased blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, weight gain, depression, decreased sex drive and more.

So, going back to my opening question: When you tell someone, you’re ‘stressed’, what do you mean exactly?

Before you next tell your spouse, partner, friend, boss that you’re stressed, or had a ‘stressful day’, stop, and consider the above definitions and decide what is you are actually feeling and what your purpose is, in telling the other person.

Perhaps you were under pressure all day, but you enjoyed the feeling because you love a challenge. Now you want to tell the person how pumped up you are.
Perhaps there was an incident at work that caused you to feel acute stress. But now the danger has passed, and the feeling is subsiding, but you want to tell the person about the experience.
Perhaps there’s something you’re worried about and would like the person’s help in mitigating the risk.
Or perhaps you are experiencing chronic stress and your reason for telling the person is that you’d like some support in dealing with the stressor(s) and/or coping with the feelings you’re experiencing.

Why is this clarity of definition so important?

When we are clear on what it is we are feeling then we can take the appropriate action, and seek the support we need, to address our chronic stress and/or manage our anxiety level.

Would you like some help getting your stress or anxiety under control?

If you want help getting your stress or anxiety under control, simply click the button below to secure a 30 min Zoom or phone consult with me, where we can explore how I can help you liberate yourself from stress and/or anxiety. Alternatively give me a call or contact me today on 021 056 8389 or email