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Introduction to stress (part 1): What is Stress?

Posted on Sep 12, 2017

What is stress? (image source)


         Have you been on the receiving end of your colleague’s rant about how stressed out he has been lately? Or maybe work has been piling up and you’ve been feeling more tired and frustrated, which you think could be due to stress. Generally, people would often equate stress to something bad. But what exactly is stress?

         The stress response, or commonly known as “fight or flight”, is the body’s response to a situation which might be harmful to you. When that happens, your body releases stress hormones, which changes the way your body works.  Generally, if you believe that you will be negatively affected in the areas of work, social life, health, finances, and so on, this might trigger a stress response.

         When your body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine (or commonly known as “adrenaline”), your liver produces more glucose, which allows you to have access to energy that you can use in that emergency situation1. For example, when you are suddenly given some work to complete by the end of the day, your body adapts through the stress response and gives you that jolt of energy for you to power through the day and complete it.

          On top of that, the stress hormones that are being released also triggers changes in your bodily functions. Your heart will begin to beat faster, you will begin to take shallow and faster breaths, and you will have changes to your appetite1. Your blood vessels will also begin to dilate, which increases blood flow throughout your body1. Again, all this happens because your body is beginning to face the emergency situation. You have all that energy now, and will be able to take on the challenge!


Imagine running a race completely stress-free. You might not even reach the finish line! (image source)


         As you can see, experiencing a stress response can be a very helpful thing. Your body is able to work wonders in order to cope with the stressful demands of everyday life. Under normal circumstances, these changes are only momentary, and your body will begin to regulate itself back to your usual relaxed state once the stressful situation is over.  

          However, being exposed to stress in the long-term can be rather damaging to you. Imagine feeling all pumped up every day. Sounds like a very uncomfortable situation! Furthermore, this drains your body’s resources and you’ll then be exposed to a variety of short and long-term health risks. While stress can be helpful, it is equally important to manage stress effectively and to learn how to relax.

         Fun fact: Positive events can also trigger a similar stress response. Do you remember getting “butterflies” in your tummy when out on a date, or feeling restless when thinking about the holiday resort you’ll be going to the next day? While positive events may also be stressful in the short-term, it does not usually last as long as, say, overwhelming work demands or relationship difficulties. On top of that, positive events also make you feel good (despite being stressful)!



American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body. (2017).

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