Types of Stress and Stressors

Stress has a direct impact on our physical and mental health. It also affects our physical, mental, and emotional health behaviors. Though many behaviors that contribute to better health and wellbeing are more difficult to start and sustain when stressed out, the unfunny joke is that these behaviors contribute to a reduction of stress. Stress is a root cause, consequence, *and* solution.

This interwoven connection often results in a stress-unproductive coping cycle that is very difficult to break. We can, however, start to tackle stress by first identifying it’s type and other characteristics. Understanding type of stress and stressor we’re experiencing at any given time helps us to identify where we have control and to what degree. This then allows us to determine the best way to cope with or eliminate each stressor.

In other words, naming the type of stress can help us reframe the way we view it and deal with it.

Stress is sorted into a few categories, and usually fits into one of each; a true visual representation of why stress is so… stressful.

The Nuances of Stress

Good v Bad

Not all stress is bad for us; in fact, some stress is good for us. It helps our bodies prepare for future stress… think of it like stress training. The first thing important to delineate is type of stress. Generally speaking, good stress is not something we will be looking to eliminate whereas bad stress is something we will want to eliminate to whatever extent possible. The easiest way to evaluate this type is the root of the cause; is the stress a result of something that will have a positive means to its end?

EUSTRESS is positive stress that helps our bodies prepare for negative stress. This type of stress is responsible for building resilience. Things that fall into this category are exercise and natural life challenges like tests/exams, etc.

DISTRESS is negative stress that impacts the mind and/or body in a harmful manner. Distress is not typically rooted in something that will eventually provide a positive outcome. Distress can be caused by internal and external factors.

Acute v Chronic

ACUTE STRESS is present for a specific duration and usually in a strong burst – it’s fast and furious. Acute stress can result from predicted and unpredicted situations, and is usually rooted in fear.

CHRONIC STRESS is prolonged stress that has been present for an extended period and/or will be for the foreseeable future. Chronic stress can be a result of controllable and uncontrollable stressors.

External v Internal

EXTERNAL STRESSORS are caused by outside factors usually outside of one’s control. Some examples would be losing a job, car breaking down, etc.

INTERNAL STRESSORS are caused by internal factors. Often these are things that we exacerbate in our minds or make worse by ignoring. Some examples are an inability to cope in a productive way; lack of self-awareness/emotional intelligence; denial/neglect of identity and/or needs

Types of Stressors

Each stressor will fall into one of each category listed above, but stressor type is reserved for the root stressor itself.

Acute Time-Limited Stressors

These stressors are sudden, short situations that are generally fear and/or anxiety-inducing. These stressors can be planned or unplanned. For someone who is afraid of public speaking, a planned speech is an acute time-limited stressor. This also includes situations that spike adrenaline quickly like a near-miss accident. The goal with this type of stress is to work on coping skills to help bring the body back to homeostasis in the moment. This means slowing heart rate and breathing, releasing physical tension, and other methods of distress tolerance.

Brief Naturalistic Stressors

These are stressors that are serious challenges to daily life, but often over relatively quickly (within a few years/months). These are tough, but more-or-less common life stressors. This includes planned and unplanned stressors like certifications, exams, degrees, pregnancy/trying-to-conceive, weddings, breakups (romantic & platonic), changes to childcare and schooling, etc. This is one type of stressor is where we work to build resilience. The goal with this stressor is to develop coping skills to support positive health behaviors that fit into the current reality; asking ourselves “What do I need – & what works – for who I am *today*?”

Event Sequence Stressors

This stressor covers the serious but resolvable challenges caused by one specific event; when things fall like the domino effect from one primary event. Some examples here are job loss, rejection from education program, loss of home to (natural) disaster or intolerable housing situation. This type of stressor is particularly difficult because it can be impossible to figure out where to begin fixing the situation. The goal here is to develop coping skills to support the ability to create solutions wherever controllable. Goals are very action-oriented, focusing on either external or internal behaviors.

Distance Stressors

This is a tough one; arguably the most difficult to work through. Distance stressors are traumatic past experiences that persist psychologically and emotionally. Though distance stressors often arise in childhood/adolescence, traumatic experiences later in life (i.e. abusive relationships) may benefit from coping in the same manner. The goal here is to work with an appropriate professional to gain the necessary skills to support healing. Trauma is serious and needs to be treated accordingly.

[Some resources are listed at the end of this post.]

Chronic Stressors

This stressor is life-changing and pervasive, impossible to ignore in daily life. Unlike acute or brief stressors, this type has no clear end in sight. Some examples of this type are caring for those with special needs or illnesses, or excessive job demands. This type does the most wear-and-tear to our minds and bodies and should be treated as a priority. The goal here is to develop coping skills to support positive health behaviors in current reality, built for long-term sustainability. We want to ask: “What do I need – & what works – to cope with this unchangeable stressor for the foreseeable future?”

Next Week

Let’s get to work! I’ve got a worksheet for you to identify personal stressor types & characteristics, separated within the eight areas of wellness – emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual. We need to begin breaking stressors down to really hone in on coping mechanisms.



Mental Health Resources

  • Many healthcare plans offer mental health coverage; be sure to check your plan.
  • betterhelp.com offers affordable, easily accessible mental health professionals
  • Local mental health divisions – many offer access to support groups and other free resources
  • Local programs may offer discounted services by supervised mental-health-professionals in training.
  • Leverage your tax dollars – call your member of congress’s local office and ask for all relevant resources. It’s literally their job to make sure programs are known/being used. house.gov to put in your zip code & get member info
About shauna@reyoutotalhealth.com


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