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What is Stress?

By Jacqui Beasley
Rehabilitation Consultant

What is Stress? Stress means different things to different people, so defining it is difficult. Stress producing factors – technically called stressors – are different for everyone, yet they ALL elicit the same biological stress response. These biological stress responses allow us to cope with increased demand upon the human machinery, be that the body, the mind or both. 

Stress can be good.

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make us feel threatened, or upset our equilibrium in some way. When we sense danger - whether it’s real or imagined - the body's defences automatically react in a rapid stress response process, often referred to as the “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” reaction.

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting us. When working properly, it helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life - giving you extra strength for example to defend yourself, or by spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.

The stress response also helps us rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps us on our toes during a presentation at work, helps us prepare for a tricky meeting or sharpens our concentration before a race/competition.

The body’s response to stress

You perceive a threat.

Your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

These hormones rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart beats faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper.

These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus - preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

However there is a point where stress stops being helpful and becomes a health risk. At this point It can cause major damage to health, and affect our moods, productivity, our relationships and quality of life.

The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behaviour in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently.

Common warning signs and symptoms of workplace stress:

It's important we learn how to recognise when our stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up . We get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. We don't notice how much it's affecting us, even as it takes a heavy toll. Some of the commons signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed
  • Apathy, loss of interest in work
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fatigue, muscle tension or head aches
  • Stomach problems
  • Social withdrawal
  • Trouble concentrating


Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits all” solution to dealing with it.  Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation.

(The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload)

In our next blog we examine what employers and employees can do to reduce workplace stress.

Link for Stress website: www.helpguide.org