The word stress has become one of the most spoken word people mention or hear nearly daily. Although we all have some sort of feeling about what stress means, how do we actually define it?

Stressors are actions, behaviors or factors that take us from our dynamic equilibrium or baseline called homeostasis. Under normal circumstances, we are able to maintain our baseline by balancing various elements in a stable and predictable way.

As an example, biological homeostasis comprises of the ability to maintain a stable body temperature even when under the influence of external factors (stressors) such as heat, cold or exercises.

Under the effect of a stressor, a stress response occurs. Therefore, a set of events happens including catching our attention on the event, managing the threat, dealing with any damage (physical and/or emotional) and eventually bringing us back to homeostasis.

There are several types of stressors mainly categorized as external (touching a hot surface, a hot day, twisting our ankle while walking, poor sleep) and internal (feeling depressed, having low ego, information overload, anger).

The worst part is that stressors add up into the so-called allostatic load. In other words, several stressors can pile up simultaneously. As an example, a teenager might experience stressors coming from bullying, nervousness due to a test at school, or breaking up from his/her first love or all together at the same time. On the contrary, 45 yrs. old man with two jobs and a family to maintain might feel particularly work overloaded, fearful to lose his job with all the relative cons eques that come with it, hating his boss or all together. Both individuals have a certain allostatic load disrupting their homeostasis, and the amount of stress they can handle will be significantly different.

There are 4 main stages we go through in response to stress:

  1. Baseline homeostasis. This is the state we start from prior to the stress
  2. Disruption. The action of a stressor that takes us from our baseline homeostasis
  3. Alarm phase. This is when we identify that a stressor occurred and try to manage the threat.
  4. Recover. This is when we re-establish our balance, and ideally get stronger and more resilient.
  5. New baseline. We set a new baseline to be able to handle similar stressors in the future

It is often thought that stress is bad. In reality, stress is what makes us alert, focus, learn and even more energetic (think about working out). When reflected on our daily life, a stressor can have a negative or a positive effect depending also on how we feel at the moment it occurs, how long it lasts, our interpretation of it and how connected we feel to that stressor.

For instance, you might enjoy reading this article, because you find it informative and helpful producing a good stress response (called eustress). Or it might cause you unhappiness by adding anxiety to your current allostatic load (called distress). Hopefully….you pick on the former 😉.

The main problem begins when we exceed our ability to recover from a stressor (or allosteric load) or it reaches a level that negatively affects our mood, productivity, or relationships. This is also the point at which bad habits or bad behaviors start to settle in, including laziness, wrong food choices and lack of motivation.

What is “good” or “bad” stress?

Have you ever missed the bus because you were just 1 minute late and saw it driving away before you? Well, although we might have felt frustrated and angry, surely you recovered, adapt, and learnt from it. How? By going 10 minutes early to the bus stop next time you need to.

In general, good stress

  • ends quickly (acute)
  • is infrequent, and
  • provides a positive experience we can learn from leaving us better than we were before.

On the contrary, bad stress

  • tends to last a long time (chronic),
  • leaves us with negative and depressing feelings, and
  • demotivates us and leaves us worse than we were before.

In the end the difference between good and bad stress lies in our ability to recover from it. In other words, when we do not respond effectively, stress breaks us down.

As final thought, identifying stressors as good or bad is the first step to start changing our lives towards a healthier version of it. There will always be some good and bad stress in our lives but it is all about balancing the two.

If we feel constantly overwhelmed, frustrated, or demotivated the problem might not be that we are too busy but simply that we engage on too many activities, feelings or situations that act as bad stressors.

Instead of reminding yourself how much you hate certain things and focus most of the time on it, remind yourself to engage more on good stressors more frequently such to change the ratio bad/good in favor of the good. This latter can be as simple as a walk outdoor, go running 3 times a week instead of one, read more book that make you laugh or feeling good, engage in social activities more frequently, spend more time with your kids or listen to your favorite music during your breaks.

Stay strong!