Understanding Stress

Stress is a word I hear being thrown around a lot. Everyone is stressed, and I don’ know if it’s just my social media feed but it seems like only the rich and wealthy are stress free. Most of us are running around scrambling to make ends meet. We have utility bills, rent, phone, school and what have you. The worst part is we’re supposed to pay for all that with minimum wage working long hours, trying to please a boss that makes us feel replaceable. I’m getting stressed just thinking about it. Now I feel like I need a drink, or a smoke, or just anything that will get my mind away from all this stress! But is that the best way to deal with stress?

Most people will say no, you should meditate. Others will tell you to work out, and while these are great ways to deal with stress, I think it’s worth exploring what stress is in the first place. The reason being is because stress, like fear, and love is something that is in our DNA, which means it has been essential for our survival. That means that stress is actually a good thing, right? According to The American Institute of Stress, Hans Selye is the man who “discovered” stress. In other words, he was the first to see it in a laboratory setting, and he defined it as:

“the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”

 When Selye was experimenting on animals he submitted them to several acute stressors like extreme temperatures, noise, light and what I find applies more for humans, perpetual frustration. This is why he defined it the way he did. If you were submitted to any of these stressors, I bet you would aggressively demand change. However, as time passed the definition of stress was more associated with distress, and defined as:

“a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”

In other words, the feeling of being overwhelmed and pushed beyond your limits. Which is the most commonly accepted definition of stress today. That’s because nowadays most of us have too many problems, too many bills and responsibilities and we can get overwhelmed, to a point close to the feeling of drowning. However, this definition leaves the positive side of stress out of the picture. I know you’re probably thinking how can stress be a good thing?

“Csikszentmihalyi, who is the father of flow, found that this state is most likely to occur when the level of the challenge is perfectly matched to your skill level”

This is an excerpt from “Superfluidity: The Psychology of Peak Performance” an article from psychology today. Which essentially means that “flow” or “the zone” is the mental state in which the stress you are experiencing is not so easy as to be boring, but not too challenging as to be overwhelming. The “zone” is more commonly spoken about by athletes but has been reported and experienced by artist, writers, performers, really anyone who is giving their all to the task at hand. Therefore, stress leads to action, productivity, and even peak performance.

The thing is, not all of us are writers, athletes, or artist. Most of us have day jobs, and are presented with tasks so dull, peak performance is comical wishful thinking. Some may even say that the stress they feel does not come from their own performance, it might come from outside factors like traffic, annoying costumers/coworkers, or even little things like someone chewing loudly. What to do then?  Well according to “Better executive function under stress mitigates the effects of recent life stress exposure on health in young adults” a PMC article:

“Better executive function under stress is associated with fewer health complaints and that these effects may occur by reducing individuals’ perceptions of stressor severity.”

Which basically means, less complaints about your health leads to experiencing less stress, and that simply changing the way you look at the stressor will alleviate your stress. For example, if you find yourself beeping and screaming in bumper to bumper traffic you can stop and tell yourself “you know what’s not helping? Me obnoxiously beeping and screaming all these other people who are also stuck in traffic” Realizing that traffic is not the end of the world, and that you will get home late and the only choice you have is to sit there quietly is a sure way to alleviate the stress. I know that’s easier said than done, but it does work.

To summarize, STRESS is:

  1. A signal for change – It is trying to tell you that something is amiss and you need to make a change. You have school work to do and you’re not doing it. You have a job you hate and you’re not looking for another one. You are being overwhelmed, you have too much on your plate and you need to stop before you reach a breaking point.
  2. Fuel for performance – When you don’t shy away and actually rise to the challenge and give it your all, stress can take your performance to heights you never thought possible. It’s the fuel that keeps you up working, training and improving. It’s the fire under your feet that keeps you moving forward, if you let it.
  3. Natural “nootropic” – When you have no choice but to rise above the situation, increase your mental state and realize that the stressor is not as severe as you are giving it credit. You brain will rewire itself to experience less, or no stress when the situation presents itself again.


I’ll leave you with this: As I said at the beginning is seems like only the rich and successful are stress free. The reality is, it’s not that they don’t experience stress, but instead that they are better at dealing with stress. If they don’t like their job, they find a new one, even if it means working after they get out of work. If they can’t do anything about their situation they change their attitude about it. In short, stress is your friend, let it guide you to improvement and not to ruin.




“Better executive function under stress mitigates the effects of recent life stress exposure on health in young adults” link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5517019/

“What is stress?” link: https://www.stress.org/what-is-stress/

“Superfluidity: The Psychology of Peak Performance: Why it’s important to break the “flow” experience into two-tiers.”  link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201303/superfluidity-the-psychology-peak-performance







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