Understanding Stress

Stress can be a confusing subject to understand because there’s no one agreed upon definition for it.


When I set out on my journey (eight years ago) to learn all I could about stress, I soon discovered that there was a plethora of stress definitions. I found this extremely confusing, particularly when multiple definitions were used in the same paragraph, as in many of the books and articles I’ve read.

To ensure that my stress management clients are on the same page as me, throughout their stress mastery coaching programme, I establish the following definitions right at the start of our work together.


stressor can be a person, place, or situation (real or imagined) that you perceive is a threat to your immediate, or future, physical and/or emotional well-being.

Acute stress is the combination of bodily sensations and fear, we experience in response to a stressor.

Stress is the bodily sensations we experience in response to a build-up of stress hormones in our body.

Chronic stress is the name we give to our long term experience of stress.

And to complete the picture we also need to define anxiety:

Anxiety is the name we give to the stress we experience in response to a perceived future threat.

But wait, there’s more …. What about psychological stress?

Psychological stress – the name given to the stress we experience in response to imagined clear and present danger and future imagined threats.

The above definition of Stress throws up an interesting couple of questions:

What stress hormones build up in our body and why do they build up?

Stress hormones

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. It is a necessary hormone that helps in maintenance of our metabolism. It is secreted two times a day, once in the morning and then in the evening. It’s maintained at different levels at different times in the body. Our body needs cortisol at all times but, in response to a stressor it needs much more of it.

During a fight or flight response, cortisol is released by the adrenal glands and puts our body’s metabolism into overdrive. It remains in our system for between a few hours to a day or two, once it has been released. While it’s active, it suppresses some biological functions that are less important during a survival situation, such as digestion, reproduction and growth.

Our adrenal glands also release aldosterone, which increases blood volume, and so our blood pressure.

Our thyroid gland produces thyroxine which increases our metabolic rate, raises the level of sugar in our blood to provide fuel, increases our heart and respiration rates, increases our blood pressure and increases intestinal motility movements.

This complex cascade of hormones is designed to increase our survival chances in the short term. Over the long term if they’re allowed to build up, we become tired and eventually, exhausted.

Why do stress hormones build up?

Stress hormones can build up (creating our ‘stress level’) for two reasons:

1.    Most of the stress we experience today is psychological. The stressor (perceived danger/threat) is imagined. When a stressor is imagined we are unable to take physical action in response to it. Without physical action, the stress hormones flowing around our body don’t get metabolised as quickly as they would if we were fighting off an attacker or fleeing from one.

2.    We don’t have enough rest and recovery time between acute stress responses. Our survival system evolved with the expectation that once we survived a physical danger we would find a place to rest and recover. To ‘recharge our batteries’ as it were, so as to be ready to respond to the next danger that we encounter. And as we rest and recover our stress hormone level has an opportunity to return to normal. As our stress level drops, our heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other biological functions resume their regular activities.

Quite simply, our survival system just wasn’t designed to handle one stressor after another, in quick succession, which for many people, is what their system now has to handle on a daily basis.

The above definition of chronic stress raises this interesting question:

How long do we have to experience stress before we can call it chronic?

Most definitions of chronic stress read like this: “Chronic stress is stress that’s constant and lasts over an extended period of time.” I haven’t yet been able to find clear guidance as to how long ‘an extended period of time is’.

However, the definition of chronic pain gives us a clue as to what the medical profession deems to be ‘chronic’. Usually pain is regarded as chronic when it lasts for more than 3 months. So it’s reasonable to assert that stress can be regarded as chronic, when it’s experienced constantly for more than 3 months. Unfortunately, many people get used to experiencing stress, and their experience continues, unabated, for much longer than three months.

The longer we experience stress the more habituated we become to what it physically feels like. The daily stress experience becomes our new normal and the physical sensations drop out of our awareness. This can be harmful to our long term health because, chronic stress can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies. Experiencing a chronically high level of cortisol has the impact of altering our immune system responses and suppressing the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. We become more susceptible to illness and disease.

How can you use this information?

“And if you experience every day as an emergency you will pay the price.” ~ Robert M Sapolsky author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

To manage stress effectively we first need to understand what we’re dealing with. The above definitions are a great place to start.

Next, it’s vital that we are able to tune into our bodies and understand how we experience stress. We each experience stress differently. Knowing how we experience stress helps us to spot the early warning signs that we are experiencing stress. By bringing our habituated stress experience back into consciousness we are then in a position to take proactive steps to reduce our stress level.

By keeping our stress level under control, we can avoid stress becoming chronic, and avoid experiencing the adverse consequences for our performance, well-being and happiness.

Need help in mastering your stress and anxiety?

If you are suffering with stress, chronic stress or anxiety and want to be free of them and to start enjoying life fully again, call me on 021 056 8389 or email tony@tycoaching.nz with your name & number, or use the Book Now button below. 

Go well 


REMEMBER – “When you change your mind you change your life.”

Tony helps people of all ages live their lives free of unnecessary stress, anxiety and depression, and be happier, healthier and more fulfilled.