What is STRESS?

December 15, 2019
Stress and Health

The feeling of being stressed is familiar to most of us. We all experience some level of stress, virtually from the moment we wake up until we go to bed. But what is stress really? Stress made us who we are. As a species, we've evolved as a result of stress. Our autonomic nervous system has a built-in stress response that allows the body to combat stressful situations, the so-called “flight or fight” reaction that is activated in case of an “emergency”. The body responds to stress via HPA axis (hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis) that will  trigger stress hormonal cascade across multiple organs and systems pushing your body’s machinery into a “crisis” state.

Acute stress

To "save" your life, your body starts to produce more energy: more glucose is released from your liver, more blood and oxygen are pumped to the heart and muscles. Functions that are not immediately needed, like digestion, sex, the immune system, are slowed down. You feel your heart beating in your throat, you become extremely aware of everything around you, and feel a real boost. This acute stress is not always negative and unpleasant, it can be positive and stimulating (i.e. falling in love, getting promoted etc.), keeping us alert and ready to avoid danger (i.e. winning a competition, public speaking etc.). This stress-response system is self-limiting: once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal.

Chronic stress

But in the modern world, the “always on” trend puts us in a permanent state of alert. With no (or little) relief and relaxation, the body’s recovery capacity is exceeded and stress-related tension will build up. Continuous stress became the norm and turns against us, causing wear and tear on our body and mind with an increasing risk for burnout. This will manifest in a variety of ways: some people will have sleep problems, others will feel mostly tense and nervous, others  more anxious and/or depressed, excessively tired, exhausted, overly emotional with a loss of focus, and some will even have physical symptoms such as pain or a skin rash. In addition, it is common that chronic stress is linked to lower motivation, lower efficacy and poor decision making. Not lastly, chronic stress will increase the risk for  addictive behaviour.

What is stressing us so (too) much? The main stressors of our modern life are coming from our work and workplace environment, our personal life (family/marriage, loneliness, disease, substance abuse etc.), environment (noise, light, lack of nature, digital intox etc.), bad time management etc

Stress pioneers

The notion of ‘fight or flight reaction” was introduced at the beginning of 20th century by Walter Bradford Cannon, in early '30s Hans Selye borrowed the notion of "stress" from physical mechanics to describe biological responses to threats (" stressors").

Few decades ago, Dr Bruce McEwen had introduced the term “allostasis” (in 1993) that brings more nuances to the previous stress definition. Another stress pioneer is Dr Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher and thinker in the field of psychoneurobiology, professor at Stanford and author of several delicious educational books that spread science of stress in an enjoyable, easy to read format.


If you want to learn more about stress: