Stress is one of those words that we use so often it can be hard to know what it means. Stress comes in different degrees: Is what you're feeling stress, Stress, or STRESS?
When we're talking about the first level of stress, we mean the usual pressures of everyday life. For example:
- The stress of juggling everything you need to fit into a busy week. This is the kind of stress you might feel if you have a term paper deadline plus a math exam tomorrow, and you need to find time to do your normal homework, tutor the kid you mentor, and hey, don't forget dance class.
- The stress you feel before an event that makes you nervous. This is the stress that makes your palms sweat before you recite your lines in the school play, give a presentation to your class, or buckle up to take your driver's test.
- The lingering stress you feel over things that happen in your daily life. Maybe it's a misunderstanding with a good friend or stewing over whether you'll ask your crush to a party.
Everyday stressors are not always easy, but they're not big disasters either. In fact, a bit of everyday stress can actually be good. For example, the stress most of us feel before presenting in class boosts our adrenaline and helps us perform at our best.
The more practice we get at handling everyday challenges, the better we get at dealing with challenges in general. The better we get at dealing, the less stressed out we feel. It's like learning to ride a bike as a kid: Bumps in the road can look pretty scary when you're wobbly and first starting out. But the more bumps we take, the more confident we become. Before we know it, we're balanced and in control.
Everyday stress simply calls our awareness to a situation that needs attention. It reminds us to slow down, steady ourselves, focus, and get ready. We tackle these everyday stressors by studying for exams, practicing a class presentation, or thinking about how to work it out with a friend. Once we get to work on finding a way to solve the problem, the pressure and stress ease.
Difficult Life Situations
Beyond everyday stress, there's the stress that can come from difficult life situations — the ones that are pretty challenging but don't happen every day. We don't get as much practice dealing with these medium-sized stressors (luckily!).
Moving, divorce, a painful breakup, the death of someone close, difficult emotions, family conflict — these things can create stress that takes more time to resolve.
It might seem like the feelings that come with these stressful situations will never go away. But the coping skills we've built as we deal with everyday stress can kick in to help — even if we don't realize it.
The stress that comes with difficult life situations feels stronger and lasts longer than everyday stress. It can help to learn more about how others have dealt with a similar situation; to talk about what you're going through with someone close; and to get support or guidance to help you work out, cope with, or adapt to, your specific situation.
Sometimes, though, stress can overwhelm our ability to cope. Maybe the stress is just too strong, our coping skills aren't there, or the problem we have is too big. That's when stress can get serious.
Serious stress can come from dealing with a personal crisis, a disaster, a health crisis, or a mental health condition that feels out of control.
Some of the things that can lead people to experience serious stress are:
- Situations where the pain keeps coming, leaving a person in a constant state of fear and watchfulness. When people are in situations like bullying or abusive families, they never know when violence will raise its ugly head. Living in these kinds of situations can wear down our stress response and put us in stress overload.
- Stress that causes people to lose their emotional balance and react in ways that are self-destructive. Sometimes people react to stress in ways that cause more stress or self-harm, like cutting, running away, or abusing drugs and alcohol.
- Stress that builds or comes on so suddenly that a person is left feeling afraid, overwhelmed, or depressed. When stress starts to interfere with the ability to enjoy everyday life, it's serious.
PTSD is an example of stress that's serious and intense. PTSD is a specific type of stress reaction caused by a traumatic event that's so intense it overwhelms the person's ability to cope.
Serious stress is not at all routine. With serious types of stress, you probably need some extra help and support.
When stress is serious, approaching it with these ideas in mind can help:
- Don't ignore a big problem, hoping it will go away.
- Get help figuring out how you'll cope. When stress builds so it becomes unmanageable, it's not always possible to see a way out or a clear answer on what to do. In these cases, you probably need help dealing with whatever situation is creating serious stress for you. This is when it's time to turn to a parent, counselor, therapist, religious leader, teacher, coach, or someone else you trust and ask for help.
- Work on building your coping mechanisms. Manage everyday stress by making small goals and breaking big ones down into manageable chunks. You're less likely to feel overwhelmed, and taking charge of small things can help you feel better. Don't give up.
- Be kind to yourself. Practices that build well-being and happiness work to counterbalance even the biggest challenges. Meditation, finding things to be grateful for, doing what you love, being with positive people, recognizing the good in yourself — all of these can help build inner resilience and tip the balance in a more positive direction.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: May 2013