Understanding Stress: Shifting Perspectives for Better Mental Health

In the spirit of modeling a wellness mindset, I’ve embraced “The enemy of progress is perfection” for these resources. While in an ideal world, I’d only produce evidence-based, academically sourced content, the reality of my life as a parent and professional demands flexibility. Thus, I share insights from my experiences, learnings, and memory. I prioritize accuracy, so if you spot any errors, please let me know.

Disclaimer: The content here is psycho-educational and/or opinion, and not a replacement for personalized psychotherapy. Each person’s mental health needs are unique; consult a qualified professional for personalized support.

Don’t stop reading after my next statement—it may challenge a strongly held belief, but understanding this concept could significantly benefit your mental health: I believe that most people are misusing the term “stress.”

Are you “stressed out”? Are you “stressing” over things?

It’s common to use the phrase “stressed out” in everyday speech or to say that you have a lot of stress. This implies that life circumstances are causing you to feel pretty lousy. However, this phrase overlooks a crucial part of the stress story and takes away a layer of agency or control from your experience.

So, let’s clarify what stress actually is!

Stress is a neutral term describing the physiological response of our body to various stimuli. For example, when we eat, we digest. Aspects of digestion are the stress caused by eating. When we exercise, we stress our bodies, as evidenced by our elevated heart rate and heavy breathing. Similarly, an injury causes stress, which is the body’s healing response. The event is the stressor, the response is the stress.

When someone says they are “stressed out” or experiencing stress, they likely mean they are having a subjective experience of that stressor. Typically, they are describing distress. However, eustress refers to the subjective experience of positive stress—like getting ready to perform an art piece, give a speech, or engage in an enjoyable exercise.

Distress feels like a trap, a lack of control, and a sense of suffering. Eustress feels like motivation, excitement, and attainable challenges; which is what I was feeling in the above photo, after a long hike with a steep incline. My body was fatigued and I had stressed it with the challenge, but it was a positive experience. While some stressors are unavoidable and suffering is part of the human experience, perception plays a significant role in categorizing stress as distress or eustress. For someone living in a chronic fight-or-flight state, many situations may induce more distress and less eustress compared to someone who isn’t. For one person, a gentle walk might be energizing and pleasurable; for another, it may be grueling.

Why am I writing about this?

Humans have experienced and interpreted various stressors throughout evolution. Although it can feel like we weren’t built to thrive under stress, consider this: when feeling perpetually overwhelmed and burdened, we might have more agency than we think in how we experience those stressors. Perhaps it’s okay to be tired and worn out at the end of a long workday; maybe that feeling can be interpreted as neutral—just being tired—rather than distressing and intolerable. This may shift out overall experience of overwhelm and overburden. The caveat is that I recognize that there are life stressors that are at times entirely too much to cope with, including systemic challenges. It’s just usually a mix, with some room to improve.

There are many ways to shift the experience of near-constant distress. Grounding activities that genuinely resonate with you such as working with your breath, understanding your unique sensory or chronic pain experience, and psychotherapy are fantastic starting points. Notice that I’m not advising you to simply ‘deal’ with stress better. This isn’t about shoving it all down, avoiding it, or numbing yourself. Chronic distress can contribute to chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and other challenges. Learning to perceive fewer events as distressing and allowing them to be neutral opens up the possibility for the brain to re-orient and rewire, leading to less distress, less pain, and better mental health.

When you begin to view stress as neutral and interpret your stressors more neutrally, your brain learns to live within your window of tolerance (LINK TO WINDOW OF TOLERANCE POST)—where you can think your thoughts, feel your feelings, and take actions—rather than reacting out of hyperarousal or hypoarousal.

I come with the perspective that you are the expert on yourself, I am an expert at psychotherapy, and we are both fallible humans. I don’t claim to have all the answers or know better than you. I will share resources, describe concepts and experiences, and contemplate out loud (in writing). The more I learn, the more aware I am of how much I do not know. 

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If you would be interested in exploring what therapy has to offer you, I’m here to help. KC Davis wrote, “Imperfection is required for a good life.” So, begin here and now, where you are already at, and I’ll meet you where you are.

Photo of Shira standing outdoors. She is wearing a red dress and blue cardigan.

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