What is stress?


What is stress? Basically, it’s a completely normal reaction we’re all familiar with. From an evolutionary point of view, stress is an ancient and biologically meaningful mechanism which puts us into fight or flight mode thus ensuring our survival. In case of danger, we can immediately mobilise all our forces and our entire organism and thus react to the stress or challenge to save ourselves.

From this point of view, stress can be considered as quite useful. However, it is important that we relax after every physical activation triggered by stress. If we don’t, and instead remain in an alarmed state of stress throughout, we become sick.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, because in our world we’re exposed to stress all the time. It is triggered by a multitude of stimuli every day and since we don’t use up the energy created by the stress reaction through a fight or a run for cover, we accumulate the stress within our cells.

What are the components of stress, what is it made of?

Everybody knows what we mean when we say that we are “stressed”. But the term is quite complex.
On the one hand, there is a stress reaction (response). It manifests in various physical symptoms, thoughts, feelings and behavior.
Then there are the so-called stress factors, also known as stressors. These are all the conditions and stimuli we classify as danger or threat, for example, noise, time pressure, an argument, change, etc.

Stress is neither just a stimulus (stress factor) nor just a reaction. Both are related and influence each other. The stress researcher Richard Lazarus speaks of a transaction, a connection between a constantly changing situation and a person who thinks, feels and acts. Both (situation and person) influence each other and interact with one another. According to this view, there are no stimuli, which always work as stress triggering factors: A stimulus only becomes a stress triggering factor when it is classified as such by the person who experiences it. This can of course be very different from person to person.

We evaluate a situation incredibly fast and almost simultaneously as it is happening, and, depending on how we evaluate it, we experience the situation as neutral or pleasant or positive or as threatening, challenging and thus stress-related. This explains why some people are more and more often stressed than others and get upset in situations which others perceive as completely relaxed or normal.

The way we react to stress is also different for each person. Some experience a reaction in their digestion, others more in their cardiovascular system. Not to forget our emotions, which are also triggered by and subject to stress and which also differ from person to person. Common emotions triggered by stress are anger, rage, fear, anxiety and depression. In this context, researchers use the term „stress emotions”.

The stress reaction

The stress reaction is the process that takes place when the external stressors, i.e. the stress triggers, act on us. Here are the individual stages of this reaction:

  1. External events act as stressors on the brain, the nervous, the cardiovascular, the digestive and the immune system as well as the skeletal muscles.
  2. Perception and evaluation.
  3. Activation of fight or flight mode.
  4. Stress Reaction in the Hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals, automatic nervous system and immune system.

If we returned to the relaxation mode now, the description could end here. But if this doesn’t happen, we will find ourselves caught up in a sickening cycle.

  1. Internalization and inhibition of the stress reaction. This results in chronic overstimulation, which acts as an internal stressor and affects the cardiovascular system, skeletal muscles, the nervous system and the immune system and thus the circulation continues and we are back at the start. By the way, chronic overstimulation can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiac dysrhythmia, sleep disorders, chronic headaches, backaches and anxiety.
  2. Maladaptive coping through self-destructive behaviours, e.g. overworking, overeating, hyperactivity, substance abuse (which again work as internal stressors)
  3. Breakdown and burnout (which also works as an internal stressor, thus fueling the cycle once again).
The stress reaction

The stress response

„Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Viktor Frankl

This is where mindfulness comes into play. It teaches us that we can always take a step back. If we consciously step out of the stressful situation, we can avoid stress by understanding that we are not identical with our thoughts and feelings. This is important because our thinking largely consists of judgments and evaluations of our perceptions. Mindfulness teaches us to see our thoughts as thoughts and not as „the truth”. This way, we can escape the unhealthy cycle of the stress reaction.

The stress response now opens up an alternative direction after the external stressors have worked upon us. It lets us respond instead of reacting.

  1. External events act as stressors on the brain, the nervous, the cardiovascular, the digestive and the immune system as well as the skeletal muscles.
  2. Perception and evaluation.
  3. a) Fight or flight alarm mode
    b) A mindful observation of our thoughts, feelings and perceived dangers. Awareness. Relaxation.
  4. Stress response in the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals, automatic nervous system and immune system.
The stress response

As we can see, stress is also experienced in this scenario. However, the way we deal with it differs significantly from the processes in the stress reaction: We can be aroused, but at the same time we perceive our body in a very attentive and alert manner. We take note of the tension of the muscles and the breathing and we also take into account the overall context. What follows are emotional- or problem-oriented ways of behaviour. We can recognise new possibilities and restore our inner balance faster and don’t breakdown or burn out.

Two types of stress: eu- and disstress

To finish, a few words about the distinction between eu- and distress, two terms you may have heard already.

The term distress is derived from the Latin prefix „dis-”, which means „bad”. It is used to describe „negative stress” which is always perceived as strenuous.

Its opposite is „eustress”, „positive stress”. Its name is derived from the Latin prefix „eu-”, which means „good”. This term refers to the kind of stress we feel when we „have to” do something under pressure but actually still like to do it. Think of travel preparations, final spurts towards the end of a project etc. This type of stress is not really perceived as a burden and can even push us forward and drive us to new peak performances.

Yet here, too, one should always remember to take a break in between!

If you want to improve your mindfulness in your daily life, you can start to meditate with me. Here are all the info you need: Meditation with Noémie


  • Dr. Ulla Franken, Universitätsklinikum Essen-Mitte.
  • Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn: „Mit Kindern wachsen. Die Praxis der Achtsamkeit in der Familie”.
  • Drawings from the book „Gesund durch Meditation” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, taken from: https://mindfulmindblog.wordpress.com/


von noemie