What is stress?


From an etymological point of view, the English “stress” is correlated with the Latin (and Italian) “tighten” and “strictus”.

The term stress therefore originally means “pressure” and is introduced in medicine by analogy by metallurgy to indicate “the pressure that is applied to a metal to test its resistance”.

Today in English dictionaries it is written as the first meaning of the word stress: “Pressure or worry caused by the problem in somebody’s life”.

In fact, until now there is no precise definition of stress that has an operational meaning and is universally accepted.
The hypothesis proposed is that stress is a response of the brain to stimuli that cause uncertainty and that we are unable to cope with.

The term stress was first introduced in biology by Walter Bradford Cannon in 1935; the syndrome was defined in this way by Hans Selye in 1936.

This syndrome can be physiological, but it can also have pathological implications, even chronic ones, which fall into the field of psychosomatics. In general, a distinction is made between eustress and distress or respectively “good / positive” stress and “bad / negative” stress.

Hans Selye defined general adaptation syndrome (SGA) as the response that the organism puts in place when it is subject to the prolonged effects of multiple stress factors, such as physical stimuli (for example fatigue), mental (for example work commitment), social and environmental (e.g. obligations or demands of the social environment).

So, more simply, it can be said that stress is the psychological response that the body puts in place towards tasks, difficulties, or life events that are considered excessive, dangerous, or in any case overwhelming for us.

Every stressful event (also called a stressor) immediately invokes neuropsychic, emotional, locomotor, hormonal, and immunological regulatory reactions that form a general picture known as the SGA. Here, even daily life events can be considered stressors and trigger a general adaptation syndrome (SGA). Adaptation is a complex activity that is divided into the implementation of actions aimed at:

A) Change the body’s internal balance by:

the generation of a subjective emotional response;
defending the body from the stressor (fight, flight, or freezing response);
The implementation of strategies is to be developed in the event of future exposure to stress factors.

B) change the external balance of the body to adapt it to the needs of the subject.

These two aspects can vary according to multiple factors, but in general in humans as in almost all vertebrates, it is based on a constant and stereotyped pattern of action.

Pathological aspects of stress

The most common causes of stress

Here we report some aspects of life that can put us in a stressful situation.

Some examples:

Life events: both pleasant and unpleasant: marriage, the birth of a child, job promotion, death of a loved one, divorce or separation, caring for a sick or disabled person,

Environmental factors: cold and/or intense heat, noisy or polluted environments, natural disasters (eg earthquakes, floods, etc.).

Unexpected events.

Work situations: excessive responsibility, excessive workload, urgent deadlines, constant requests from a supervisor, conflicting relationships with colleagues.

Social situations: The meeting with new people, tensions, or discussions with loved ones, friends, colleagues, or family members.

Biological factors: illness, physical trauma, physical disability.

Fears: fear of failing a task, of speaking in public, of flying, of being around people.

Situations that cannot be controlled.

Way of thinking: personal opinions, one’s life expectancy, past trauma, or unpleasant memories.

Positive stress and negative stress.

Stress in itself, whatever the situation that causes it, is neither negative nor positive as it favors adaptation to the numerous stimuli, both physical and mental, received every day.

Stress can be positive when, for example, it helps you to concentrate for an exam, and gives you the energy to face a sports competition or a new job … In these cases, it is called positive stress or eustress. Instead, it becomes negative when it lasts over time without having the ability to deal with the situation that caused it. In these cases there is an overload of the system which wears out the cells, tissues, and organs, compromising their functions.

The perception of a potentially stressful event differs from person to person. What causes stress depends, at least in part, on how an event is evaluated. A person with a rigid and pessimistic way of thinking will perceive a stressful event in a much more negative and potentially dangerous way than would a person with a flexible and optimistic way of thinking. For example, in the event of a train delay, one person may react with anger and anxiety, while another may adapt to the situation by taking the opportunity to read a book or call a friend.

How everyone reacts to potentially stressful events is also influenced by genetic factors. Furthermore, strong reactions to stressful situations can, at times, be traced back to traumatic events that occurred in the past.

For example, people who were neglected or physically or sexually abused as children tend to be particularly vulnerable to stress. The same applies to those who have suffered physical violence or have survived environmental disasters, serious accidents, or terrorist attacks.

The body’s response to stress

The nervous system, regardless of the will of the person, in the presence of a dangerous situation (for example being attacked) or one that is not (for example taking an exam) reacts in the same way: as if life were in danger! This response mode is called fight or flight.

In the presence of a stressful event, the nervous system is activated promptly, promoting the release of certain substances (stress hormones: adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol) responsible for the physical and behavioral changes that allow the body to face and overcome the danger.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline cause an increase in the heartbeat, breathing, blood pressure, and the state of attention, thus predisposing the body to attack or flight; cortisol is responsible for increasing the release into the blood of glucose and lipids that provide the energy needed to support the attack or flight reaction. Furthermore, cortisol reduces certain functions of the body considered unnecessary at that time, such as digestion and reproduction, to support other vital organs, such as the brain. Once the threat has passed, stress hormone levels usually return to normal. In this case, we speak of acute stress, meaning that it begins and ends quickly. If you are constantly under stress, however, the level of hormone production remains high, leading to a condition of chronic stress that can cause both psychological disorders, such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, irritability, and sleep disturbances; both physical: such as increased blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.


If you feel stressed or want to talk more about how stress affects your daily life – think about signing up for individual coaching sessions, or group coaching sessions!


We can help you turn stress from an obstacle to an ally!

See you soon and… Feel Free.
Paola & Tyler

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