Stress Awareness Week 2024

April 2024 is Chronic Stress Awareness Month – a dedicated thirty days for fostering open conversations about Chronic Stress and the profound adverse impact it has on our overall well-being.

Talking about ‘stress’

The use of the word 'stress' across time

Above is a Google chart showing the increase in the use of the word 'stress' over the last two hundred years.

The word ‘stress’ is now widely used to refer to any level of nervous system arousal from low to extreme, short term to chronic. Hence, ‘stress’ is used to refer to pressure, acute stress, and chronic stress. 

All these experiences are different, and each has a different impact on our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing so, lumping them all under the label ‘stress’ is problematic.
It’s particularly problematic for those individuals who perceive stress as bad or toxic. For these individuals, stress then becomes a real and present danger which triggers more acute stress. So, this creates a vicious cycle where stress (the threat) triggers more stress (the feeling).

Pressure (‘Good Stress’)

Pressure is a feeling that is a combination of physical sensations and emotions. It’s a feeling we experience when we face challenges and problems that we perceive we can overcome and solve. Pressure is frequently described as ‘good stress’ in stress related books, articles, and studies. 

Pressure is felt in response to one or more demands we’ve accepted. Those demands could come from others or be demands or expectations we have placed on ourselves. As long as we perceive we can meet and fulfil those demands, then we trigger a Challenge Response in our nervous system, which adapts our body to help us meet the demands. 

Many people habitually say they are ‘stressed’ when, in fact, they are experiencing pressure.

Pressure is not harmful, it’s beneficial. Without some pressure, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Pressure helps us to perform better, hence why it’s often referred to as ‘good stress.’ However, once we perceive that we cannot meet one or more of the demands we face, then our survival system identifies this situation as a danger/threat. At that moment of identification, our Survival (Stress) Response is triggered, and we experience acute stress.

Acute Stress

Acute Stress is a feeling that is a combination of physical sensations and emotions, mainly fear and sometimes anger. The experience of acute stress occurs in response to a specific perceived real and present danger (‘stressor’) and once that danger has passed, the stress feeling dissipates as our body and nervous system switch into rest, digest, and recovery mode.

It’s important to note that there are no universal stressors because nothing ‘out there’ or inside of you has any meaning until your brain gives it a meaning. Our brain is a meaning making machine. So, I could be walking in a field with my friend when a mouse pops out in front of us. My Survival System tags the mouse as ‘safe and I move towards it. In the meantime, my friend’s Survival System has identified the mouse as a threat, and he’s already run a hundred metres from the mouse. It’s the same field, the same mouse, just two different interpretations of that same objective reality by our respective Survival Systems. 

Whenever your innate survival system identifies a real and present danger, you experience acute stress. There is no end to the potential real and present dangers your survival system can identify as dangers. You might experience acute stress when you have a near-miss car accident, or receive a medical diagnosis, or lose your car keys, or get negative feedback from your boss. 

Contrary to what is often written, acute stress does not enhance your performance. Pressure enhances performance. Acute stress degrades your ability to think clearly, make decisions and rationalise. This is because our Survival System is programmed to react first and think later, provided we survived the danger. So, while you’re experiencing acute stress, access to your thinking brain is down regulated. You make experience brain fog, a headache or light-headedness. 

The good news is that our body and nervous system are equipped to manage acute (short) episodes of stress with no harm to our physical and/or emotional wellbeing. However, chronic stress is a different story.

Chronic Stress

Chronic Stress is an ongoing, constant state of over arousal of the nervous system caused by chronic activation of our Survival Response combined with inadequate periods of rest, digest and recovery. You feel as if you are in a constant state of heightened alertness.

As stated above, our bodies are well equipped to manage acute stress, but when we are experiencing long term, continuous release of stress hormones into our body through ongoing activation of the Survival Response, these hormones, such as cortisol, accumulate. This accumulation is what we refer to as our ‘stress level.’ 

A chronically high stress level can have serious effects on our body and mental wellbeing. Chronic stress affects all systems of the body, including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.

Like chronic pain, the feeling of chronic stress can increase or decrease in severity but is consistent in its presence. 

Chronic stress is avoidable

Unlike acute stress, which you cannot completely avoid, you can prevent chronic stress and if prevention is not entirely possible, you can reduce your chronic stress level so that it does not adversely affect your overall well-being. 

You can prevent chronic stress by addressing the chronic stressors to which you are exposed.

Chronic stressors

The first step is to identify the ongoing situations that your Survival System is identifying as threats. For instance: one or more unmet physical or emotional needs, an unhealthy relationship, excessive work pressure, a chronic illness.

Having identified your chronic stressors, the next step is to put them into three categories. Things you can control, things you can partially control, and things you can’t control.
For the things you can control or partially control, identify whether you can remove the stressor from your life, or change it in some way so it’s no longer perceived as a threat.

Then draw up action plans and take action to meet unmet needs, remove the chronic stressor or change it in some way so it’s no longer tagged as a threat.

For instance, if your job is a stressor, could you move jobs? If your boss is a stressor, could you get reassigned to another boss? If a chronic illness is a chronic stressor, perhaps there’s a treatment available to cure it, or put into remittance, or significantly reduce the impact of the illness. If excessive pressure is a chronic stressor, perhaps you need to develop or enhance skills such as assertiveness, delegation, time management, project management.

Change your perception of the situation as a stressor

It’s your Survival System’s identification of a situation as a stressor that results in the feeling of stress. Where this identification is incorrect or no longer appropriate, several techniques are available to help correct the misinterpretation. These include:

- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

- The REWIND Technique

- Havening

- Integral Eye Movement Technique

- Emotional Freedom Technique

Reduce your chronic stress level

For those chronic stressors you have no control over, for instance, a rise in mortgage interest rates, accept that you have no control. Then put your energy and focus on reducing your chronic stress level through engaging in practices that frequently trigger your Rest, Digest and Recovery Response such as:

- belly breathing 

- movement

- spending time and connecting with people who care about you

- spending time in nature

- mindfulness

- self-hypnosis.


In this post I’ve shared the difference between pressure, acute stress, and chronic stress. 

Chronic stress is ‘bad stress.’ It gets this label because over time it adversely affects all systems of the body and our mental wellbeing. For this reason, it’s important that we be proactive and take steps to eliminate chronic stress from our lives.

To eliminate chronic stress we need to remove all the chronic stressors from our life. This isn’t always possible. When it's not possible to remove all chronic stressors there are ways to reduce our chronic stress level to a level where it doesn’t have an adverse impact on our wellbeing or ability to enjoy life. Some of these methods/techniques you can engage in yourself (like breathing exercises), whereas some require engaging with a stress management professional, like me. 

I want to finish by emphasising that even the smallest steps taken each day towards chronic stress reduction can yield significant improvements in your wellbeing over time. While the impact of small actions on their own may seem little, the cumulative effects of these habits can end up being profound! 

Be sure to keep checking back on my blogs or sign up for my newsletter for more information and tips on how to manage stress.

P.S. Anxiety NZ have a page dedicated to Stress Awareness Month 2024 and links to some helpful resources.