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Stress or stressor? Learn the difference to unlock growth

August 12, 2022 - 15 min read

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What is stress?

What are stressors?

The difference between stress and stressors

Stress-management techniques

How to avoid stressors

When to seek professional help

Don’t let stress turn into distress

You know what stress feels like: sweaty palms, increased heart rate, irritability. It certainly doesn’t feel nice. 

And if you’re stressed for extended periods of time, it negatively affects your mental and physical health. The short version of why is this: humans can’t handle being stressed all the time. Our bodies aren’t built for it.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 73% of Americans experience psychological symptoms due to stress, and 77% experience physical symptoms, like headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, and teeth grinding.

Ideally, you would find stress relief before anything bad happens to you. But chronic stress is often a silent operator. You might not notice it until you reach your breaking point, missing every red flag on the way. 

Thankfully, you can avoid these poor outcomes. And you can start by understanding the difference between stress vs. stressors. This will help you identify causes of stress before they negatively impact your life.

Let’s dive in.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s natural response to a real or perceived danger. When you encounter a potential threat, your nervous system reacts by pumping stress hormones — like cortisol and adrenaline/epinephrine — through your body.

These hormones raise your heart rate, constricts your blood vessels, and raise your blood sugar. Together, these physiological changes give you energy to respond to a situation.

Your stress response is a result of thousands of years of human evolution. In the past, this jolt was necessary to evade or defend ourselves from predators. That’s why it’s colloquially called our “fight or flight” response.

These days, you probably don’t have to worry about being mauled by a lion — unless, of course, you’re a zookeeper or enjoy camping in central Africa. But your biology is the same. When you feel threatened, your brain reacts to stress, even if it's not life-or-death.

When does stress become a problem?

When you experience stress for a long time, you risk developing health problems. When this happens, it’s called chronic stress.

Chronic stress means your body is continually releasing stress hormones. Your blood vessels are perpetually constricted, heart rate elevated, and blood sugar raised — things your body can’t sustain for long. Over time, this can have permanent repercussions. Chronic stress can cause:

You should also be wary of acute stress. This kind of stress occurs when you experience or witness a traumatic event, causing a rapid release of high levels of stress hormones. 

Acute stress symptoms usually dissipate quickly. But, in some cases, they can linger for a while. They can cause symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Unstable emotions
  • Dissociation
  • Avoidance symptoms
  • Insomnia
  • Flashbacks

This is usually an overwhelming experience and can lead to acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

BetterUp can help you manage your stress. Through regular meetings with our coaches, you can learn new stress management techniques to prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed.

The good kind of stress

It’s also worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, not all stress is bad. In the right doses, it’s vital for a happy and healthy life. 

Good stress, otherwise known as “eustress,” occurs when your stress comes from positive change or motivates you to improve. This allows you to benefit from the energy-producing effects of stress hormones, which can:

  • Increase your focus
  • Elevate your energy
  • Boost your motivation
  • Improve your physical wellbeing
  • Make you more resilient

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What are stressors?

Stressors are life events or situations that trigger stress. They trigger your fight or flight response, prompting the release of stress hormones throughout your body.

What are some common stressors? Well, they can appear in any area of your life. Here are some examples:

  • Work stressors. This includes having a long to-do list, a toxic boss, or a high-pressure work environment.
  • Financial stressors. Excessive debt, living paycheck to paycheck, or expensive car repairs could stress you financially.
  • Emotional stressors. Here we can include relationship troubles, lack of social support, or being a primary caregiver.

Some sources of stress can be positive, too. They can induce eustress by pushing you to step up when you need to. Some examples of eustress include:

Remember that you won’t react to all stressors equally. Your response will vary based on your coping abilities and how important the experience is to you. For example, if you’re used to giving presentations, one speech won’t phase you. But if you’ve never done it before, you might feel more anxious.

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The difference between stress and stressors

Now that we’ve nailed down the basics, let’s synthesize the key differences between stress and stressors:

  1. Stress is your hormonal response to a perceived threat, danger, or other stimuli. Stressors are what trigger this reaction.
  2. Stress can involve emotional reactions like panic, irritability, or worry. Stressors are the experiences that prompt those feelings.
  3. Stress symptoms are similar for everyone. But not everyone will react to the same stressors. What bothers your best friend might not bother you. 
  4. Stress can harm you if left unmanaged. Not all stressors are harmful.

To further drive the point, these are example stresses:

  • Panicking at the length of your to-do list
  • Experiencing an elevated heart rate when your manager messages you
  • Feeling dread going to work in the morning

And these are example stressors:

  • Being in a car accident
  • Taking on a challenging new project
  • Customers being rude to you 

Stress-management techniques

Although stress and stressors are different, both impact your overall stress levels. Knowing the difference in how to deal with them will help you cope.

Here are some techniques for when you’re already stressed. They aren’t permanent solutions, but they can help you during the thick of it:

  1. Exercise daily. Physical activity naturally produces endorphins, a stress-relieving hormone, and improves your overall health condition. Even a 15-minute walk can change your mood.
  2. Eat well. Healthy foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit can help build up your immune system and lower your blood pressure. They can also trigger your brain’s production of serotonin — a calming hormone and neurotransmitter.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques. Meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation can help relieve stress in your body.
  4. Schedule free time. You schedule everything else in your life, so why not time for yourself? Create a block to disconnect from work and indulge in your hobbies.
  5. Socialize. Humans are social creatures. Talking to a loved one or counselor can help blow off some steam.
  6. Avoid stressors. The best stress-management tactic is prevention. To do this, avoid triggers that might cause you psychological stress, like toxic people or procrastination. 

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How to avoid stressors

Self-awareness can prevent you from taking on too much in the first place. Consider these tips:

  1. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Stress often occurs when you feel ill-equipped to deal with the task at hand. Make sure you understand your limits before taking something on.
  2. Understand your motivators. Regular tasks can become stressors if they don’t align with your motivations. Find your “why” and make decisions accordingly.
  3. Make decisions around what’s important to you. If there’s a mismatch between your work, life, and core values, you can feel stressed. Try to prioritize things that add to your life instead of taking things away.

How does identifying personal stressors help?

Three people could encounter the same stressor and react differently. One might be terrified, the other might enjoy it, and another might be indifferent. 

Learn what stresses you. This kind of self-discovery will help you steer clear of overwhelming situations. It can also help you introduce good stress in your life. 

If you’re taking on a new project at work, ask yourself: Are you up to the task? It might be too much to handle if it’s far beyond your skill level. Don’t set yourself up for failure. But if it’s just challenging enough to stretch your abilities, it could be a thrilling experience.

You might learn a lot and come out stronger. Being in touch with how you’re doing and what you’re capable of will keep you out of sticky situations.

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When to seek professional help

If these stress-management solutions aren’t working for you, it’s OK to ask for help. Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed or hope to prevent future stress, you can seek advice from mental health care professionals. Many specialists treat anxiety and stress.

If you’ve never consulted a therapist, you might feel uneasy about the prospect. But this person is trained to help reduce the impact stressors can have on you.

Some common strategies they can use are:

  • Visualization. They may ask you to imagine future scenarios and potential outcomes of your actions. 
  • Pre-scripted responses. They can help you prepare to say “no” to people who ask too much of you.
  • Role-playing. They can also gently expose you to stressful situations by acting them out in a safe space.

Don’t let stress turn into distress

Understanding the difference between stress vs. stressors is key to leading a healthy life. One is your reaction to real or potential danger; the other is what causes that reaction.

Stress isn’t inherently bad for you. Some (like eustress) can be good for your overall short-term performance. But if left unmanaged, stress harms your physical and mental health.

That’s why you must stay on top of it. You can ensure that stress doesn’t dominate your life through self-awareness and stress-management techniques.

BetterUp is here if you need support along the way. Our coaches want to see you unlock your potential to help you live unburdened by negative stress. We’ll give you the tools you need to thrive.

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Published August 12, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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