The Differences Between Stressors and Stress


A car veers into your lane nearly causing a collision; your neighbor powers up his lawn mower every Sunday morning at dawn. You just put a deposit down on your first home; you have a job interview. These events, the life threatening, the annoying, the joyous and the hopeful, are all possible stressors. They can trigger the stress response. Your brain floods your system with stress hormones. Your heart pounds, you hyperventilate, your muscles tense.  You sweat. This is your body preparing to deal with a threat, be it real or imagined.

Identifying the types of stressors

Acute stress — In the case of the near car accident, this raised alertness enables you to quickly slam on the brakes. Once the threat has passed, your body returns to its normal state. This acute stress, in small doses, doesn’t cause any long-term damage. You may intentionally seek it out for the thrill of it by watching a scary movie or climbing aboard a roller coaster.

Episodic acute stress — If you live your life jumping from threat to threat, pursing each day with a sense of urgency, the stress response is no longer benign. The continual barrage of hormones can lead to tension, headaches, chest pains and anxiousness. More than half a century ago, cardiologists Dr. Meyer Friedman and Dr. Ray H. Rosenman found a link between competitive, deadline-driven behaviors, which they called Type A behaviors, and heart disease.

Chronic stress — The stressors for this type of stress are your living conditions and past traumas, stressors you have become accustomed to and may not recognize as stress. Unlike acute stress, it has no novelty. It is always there. An unhealthy marriage, a dysfunctional family, poverty or traumatic events in the past grind away at your mental and physical resources.

The first step to managing stress: Recognize your stressors.

Internal stressors

Your beliefs about yourself and your expectations for yourself may be major contributors to stress. Do you feel you must be perfect? Do you have fears that may not be completely rational, such as a fear of meeting new people? Do you feel uncomfortable when you are not in charge, or conversely, do you fear having to take responsibility? Think about times that you’ve felt stressed and identify the trigger. Use these techniques to mange self-created stress:

  • Change your thoughts — The underlying principle of cognitive behavioral therapy is that you can stop negative, maladaptive thoughts and replace them with positive, affirming ones, thereby changing the way your mind processes information. Listen to how you talk to yourself and replace criticism with supportive statements just as you would when counseling a friend.
  • Be realistic — Recognize that holding unrealistic expectations for yourself will not necessarily help you perform better, rather it will only add to your stress. A burnt crust on your holiday pie is not the end of the world.
  • Accept that you can’t control everything — There are times when you will need to relinquish control, accept this. For example, your child is a newly licensed driver. You can worry every time she pulls out of the driveway, or have faith that she is capable of the task.
  • Find peace in your body and mind — Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and regular exercise will help you focus on the present, taking away the power of the past and the future to monopolize your thoughts with fear and anxiety.
  • Talk to a friend — sharing your problems with a friend releases stressful thoughts into the air where they will dissipate. Keeping a journal also is a way of venting.

External stressors

You can’t always avoid the overly demanding boss, reckless drivers or the 2 a.m. phone call that has you rushing in a panic to the emergency room. You can control how you respond to these stressors. 

  • Express your feelings — If people in your life seem too demanding, it’s time to sit down for a talk. Keeping your resentment to yourself will negatively affect your health. You can approach this in a respectful manner using “I” statements — “I feel that…”, “I need …” This works better than using accusatory “you” statements — “You always …”
  • Reframe how you view problems — Have you lost your job? This is a major stressor, but you could look at it as an opportunity to explore new career options. Minor annoyances, such as being stuck in a long line at the grocery store, don’t need to be stressful. Accept that you have to wait and use the time to make plans or just people watch.
  • Make a plan — Having a sense of control over what is stressing you will ease your mind. If financial problems are a constant burden, sit down with your records and devise a realistic strategy for improving your financial situation. When money worries rise, you can reassure yourself the problem is temporary.
  • Pay attention to your eating habits — A diet full of sugars and fat will bog down your body and mind. Reach for nutrient-rich foods that will provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs to counter the effects of stress hormones. Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs. They are a quick fix that can become long-term problems.
  • Get enough sleep — When you are tired, you are not equipped to deal with irritations.
  • A joke a day, at least — Smiling and laughing release feel good chemicals in your brain. Look for the humor in situations and actively seek out a laugh break each day.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, if life has become joyless, you may need to seek professional help. If your thoughts wonder towards self-harm, it is essential you seek medical help immediately. Your healthcare provider will work with you to create a plan of treatment, which may include therapy and medication.