What is Stress?

We’re all familiar with stress. We feel it’s effects and we know it’s there, but somehow it still seems like this incorporeal idea. Where does it exist and what causes it? Let’s be clear that the type of stress I’m referring to is psychological stress. Certainly, one can measure the presence of other types of stress, actual physical stress, but psychological stress is different. It’s highly personal and subjective. It lies in the domain of the mind – a place known to harbor immeasurable constructs, like the imagination.

That, in essence, is what makes stress so hard to treat or manage or, sometimes even, to define. Because it is subjective and is of the mind – though not to say unreal – it is highly individual to each person, their experiences and their reaction to those experiences. For example, you may hate your job and because of that, you find it extremely stressful. You find it hard to get out of bed in the morning just knowing that you have to go to that awful, God-forsaken torture-chamber known as work. Yet, when you get to work, you may find that the co-worker sitting next to you is happy – always so annoyingly, abrasively happy. They like their job…your job. They don’t find it stressful and they actually look forward to coming to work. How can that be? How can two people doing the same job, receiving the same treatment and compensation, have such different outlooks and reactions to that job?

This, of course, is kind of obvious, isn’t it? You’re two different people, with different likes and dislikes, with possibly vastly different backgrounds and innumerable other factors that make you different from each other. Perhaps it is obvious, but we often forget this in day to day life.

It’s because psychological stress is connected to the mind that it is as much a philosophical discussion as it is a medical one – for we can’t really measure the mind and, quite frankly, we still don’t know exactly what it is. Is it purely a manifestation of the physical brain or is it something more? Do the connections between neurons create the mind and thoughts or does the brain merely access the mind? Does it merely relay our thoughts to the physical body? Or is it some combination thereof?

Regardless of the philosophical aspects, stress is real, as real as anything else, and it has real effects in the physical body. Stress can decrease our immune response leading to an increased risk for illness and infection, increase our heart and breathing rates, increase inflammation, raise blood sugar, negatively affect memory and clarity of mind and much more! It does this in large part through hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine – the stress hormones. So, next time you wonder about the reality of your thoughts and whether or not they have any reality outside of your brain, know that at the very least, your thoughts can influence your hormones and, therefore, your health.

But, you know what? Stress can actually be a good thing. Because we need some amount of stress in our lives. For any being to thrive it needs some amount of resistance to it’s growth. A good example of this is what happens with astronauts. High above the Earth’s atmosphere the influence of gravity on the human body is minimal. Astronauts that spend weeks or months in that environment risk losing muscle and bone mass. Why is that? It’s because gravity is actually a constant physical stress on the body. Without gravity, our muscles and bones weaken. So gravity, as a physical stressor on the body, maintains or stimulates the growth of certain tissues in the body. The same can be said, also, for psychological stress.

Stress, in a very real way, is the process that drives evolution. It is the external stressors that force biological creativity, modification of epigenetic control and expression systems and the introduction of new genes as a way to adapt and survive. In the same way, stress forces ingenuity in the human race and the refinement of our mind and senses. Without some amount of stress, growth is not possible…or maybe just not as likely. And without growth, what purpose might there be?

Too much stress, however, can have quite the opposite effect. But, just how much is too much is highly individual and dependent upon how we manage it and how we react to it. Too much stress can crush and suppress growth rather than stimulate it. Too much stress can also lead to chronic diseases and poor health which isn’t really creating the desired response. So, how can we manage stress if we can’t eliminate it? Because even if we wanted to eliminate it, we couldn’t really. Luckily, there are plenty of tools we can use to improve our response to stress – including breathwork and meditation. Check back in the coming weeks as I delve further into this topic of how we can better manage and react to stress from both a medical and philosophical standpoint.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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