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What Is Stress?

What makes some events stressful and others not? How can I know it is stress that I am experiencing, not anxiety or depression? What happens to the stress if I “tough it out?”

When something threatens us, we react in ways to protect ourselves. Like our hunter and gatherer ancestors, we instinctively ready ourselves for “fight or flight.” The stress reaction is an immediate response to a threatening circumstance. In the moment of crisis, we make internal adjustments in our body to prepare us to act in our self-interest. These adjustments include the arousal of our physical, thinking (cognitive), and emotional capacities, resulting in a pre-empting of normal functioning.

Physical arousal includes increased activity, heart rate, and blood pressure; faster breathing rate; perspiration; and heightened muscle tension. Cognitive arousal includes restricting focus to the immediate crisis as well as disorganized thinking. Emotional arousal may involve overwhelming or blocked feeling.

The Thinking and Feeling Basis for Stress

The way we view stressful circumstances determines whether we experience the emotional and physical arousal associated with stressful events. Hans Selye, the originator of the stress concept, told a story illustrating the notion that it is not so much what we face, but how we face it that matters. The story is about an alcoholic’s two sons. One is a teetotaler and the other an alcoholic. When asked to explain their drinking habits, both replied, “With a father like that, what can you expect?”

There are ways to turn a stressful experience into a valued learning experience, but all too often people adopt a “victim” mentality. This means thinking the stress chooses us, making it our fault that we are stressed. In actuality, the stress reaction occurs when we do not know how to handle a dilemma or challenge. Not knowing how to respond to the stressful event is not acceptable to us, so we see it as a threat to our integrity.

When we personalize stress in this way, we experience discomfort from the resulting physical, cognitive, and emotional arousal. This “victim” mentality is so automatic, we miss the chance to see the dilemma or challenge as an opportunity to learn something. Consequently, we dodge the threat by acting impulsively or by “stuffing it.” Either way, we maintain the pain of low self-esteem and the disabling consequences of stress.

By personalizing stress, we contribute to a sense of shame and an image of ourselves as unworthy. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has us unintentionally looking for and creating continuing confirmation of our unworthiness. Each time we face stress, our victim mentality reminds us that it must be our fault, since we are so unworthy. Arousal occurs in this closed system of thought. This blocks or distorts feedback about what is really happening in the world in favor of our expectation of unworthiness. In other words, all we see in the situation is how unworthy we believe ourselves to be.

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What Is Stress?

Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D

APA Reference
Gross, S. (2020). What Is Stress?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.