Stress and Distress: 8 Key Concepts you Should know

To master stress, you first have to understand it. Although everyone feels it, few know how to deal with it. And fewer still take action on how to solve this problem.

by Murray Johannsen (2019). Feel to connect via Linkedin, or by email. Last update January 2021.

“The pursuit of happiness is illusory if you are burnt out.” — Murray Johannsen 

Quote: Quote on Stress by Harry S. Truman. It goes, "If you can stand the hear, stay our of the kitchen."
A memorable quote about stress. It suggests one strategy for managing it.

Reduce The Impact of Stressors

What is Stress? 3 Definitions

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.”  — Richard Carlson

Some useful definitions include:

“A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” — (Oxford Dictionary Online)

“A stimulus or succession of stimuli of such magnitude as to tend to disrupt the homeostasis of the organism.” — (The Free Dictionary)

“Stress can be defined as the brain’s response to any demand. Many things can trigger this response, including change. Changes can be positive or negative, as well as real or perceived. They may be recurring, short-term, or long-term.” — (National Institute For Mental Health, N.D.)

Understanding Stress: 8 Key Concepts

To play music, you must understand sheet music. And to get a handle on stress, you must understand certain key concepts. 

And Epictetus would no doubt agree that you can never be free if you can’t manage your stress.


These are any internal or external stimuli that cause a change in homeostasis. Internally, we are focusing on thoughts, the thoughts that are triggered from the unconscious or the environment.

For example, there is something in medicine known as “white coat syndrome.” This is where a person’s blood pressure (due to stress) gets higher simply by going to visit a doctor or dentist.


The body (and mind) orients itself toward a normal state of functioning called homeostasis. It’s easy to understand the body — everything works and there is no pain. For the mind, it’s the right amount of stress allowing you to perform normal work and life activities. 

Eustress and Distress

Stress has benefits. Strange but true. Eustress represents the beneficial aspect of stress. This type and amount of stress move you forward. It’s like stepping on the gas pedal in a car. So it eustress moves you forward, distress does the exact opposite. It’s like stepping on a brake, it creates friction.

It’s important to understand we need a certain amount of stress to perform at optimal levels. What happens if that level is exceeded? We experience distress.

Interested? Read more about stress, burnout, and performance

Acute Stress

Image by: Clément Bardot If you walked out of the door and saw a tiger, how would you react?

By acute we mean self-limiting in terms of time — the anxiety comes and then it’s gone. Take an interview for example. At some point, it will be over. And one is unlikely to worry about it continuously.

Acute stress is what happens when we must respond immediately to a threat or danger in the short term. Emotionally, acute stress gets triggered or is triggered by negative emotions such as worry, fear, or anger.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the physiological stress symptoms for acute stress include:

  1. Your rate of breathing increases
  2. The mind becomes increasingly alert and more focused on the environment
  3. The body’s energy level gets greater
  4. Strength to the muscles increase
  5. The release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol
  6. Blood flow is redistributed from internal areas of the body to the external areas
  7. The heart beats faster
  8. The stomach and intestine grows less active
  9. Sexual interest wanes (Ouch!)

“How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then to rest afterward.” — Spanish Proverb

Chronic Stress

Maybe the ideal rich can avoid stress, but it’s really is not possible for the vast majority of humanity. And the rich have stressors as well. They just don’t have to worry much about money.

Chronic stress refers to recurring internal stressors and/or external stressors that keep coming back. Typically, there are stressors over which one has no perceived control or no real control. For example, work stressors such as short deadlines, angry bosses, and difficult coworkers are examples of common stressors. (Pelletier, 1993).

For example, it’s said that one of the most common fears (or phobias) people have is public speaking. Anticipatory anxiety and worry increase to a point where one is in the room and then it becomes all-consuming. Strangely enough, once one starts speaking, the stress level typically goes down.

It represents the accumulation of stressors over the years that typically produce some type of health problem.

Psychosomatic Illness

Edvard Munch (1863-1944): The Scream

Stimulus Appraisal of Threat Response

The impact of stress is complex. It has both mental and physical symptoms although there is a set of common psychosomatic disorders. On the metal side, one can see mental illness and anxiety disorders. For example, one review article published by the National Institutes of Health in 2017 said stress affects:

  • memory,
  • cognition
  • learning.
  • the immune system functioning,
  • the cardiovascular system,
  • the gastrointestinal system and ,
  • the endocrine system.

These are some stress-related (psychosomatic) illnesses that keep cropping up with primary care physicians.

The Fight or Flight Response

In 1914, Walter Cannon (or Hans Selye depending on who you believe) coined the easy to remember the phrase — “the fight or flight response” — to characterize the built-in response to threats and danger.

This actually makes sense if you happen to see a tiger in the parking lot as you walk toward your car. However, it makes less sense when the boss frowns and says, “I notice you didn’t earn your salary again, this month.”

The Fight, Fight or Freeze Response

Great video. Essentially it is a metaphorical explanation of why most people need a “panic monster” to TAKE ACTION

However, in my view, “Fight or Flight” is not that accurate. We should call it instead, the “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” response.  Stress or anxiety associated with a future action causes inaction when action is what is really needed.

The freeze response is very, very common, but we typically label it as procrastination. Anxiety is one cause, but there are others (see the video). And if procrastination continues for a long time, it becomes a block. In the real world of organizations, procrastination is typically overcome by a more powerful external stressor.

For example, you feel anxious about doing a presentation and so keep putting it off. But, the boss is the boss, and so we get around to putting it together (the night before) because we don’t want to lose our job. So the greater stressor causes an action that overcomes the lessor stressor.

In this scenario, procrastination not only causes stress, but the output, how shall we say, is dismal or even awful. I will say, that I see this all the time with some students who think that “A” work can be done the night before it’s due.


Stress is complicated, it is paradoxical and it requires study. The first step in getting more control is to know your enemy.

Learning To Dial Down Stress

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Understanding Culture Shock. Before the pandemic, this was a very common way of getting stressed out and burnout.

Physiological, intellectual and emotional, behavioral symptoms. A key step in maintaining the health of the mind and the body is recognizing early what the symptoms are.

The Mental and Physical Illnesses Associated with Stress. More bad news and a major reason we don’t want to let our stressors run amok.

Major Sources of Stress. It’s everywhere. It’s not surprising that people are quitting or don’t want to return to work. Why? Work creates a great deal of our stress.

Bodger, Carole (1999). Smart Guide to Relieving Stress. New York: John Wiley. Pg 9-10.

National Institutes of Health (1996). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism No. 32 PH 363, April.

National Institute of Mental Health (ND). Q&A on Stress for Adults: How it affects your health and what you can do about it.

Pelletier, Kenneth (1993). Between Mind and Body: Stress, Emotions, and Health. In Daniel Goleman and Joel Gurin (Eds.). Mind-Body Medicine. New York: Consumer Reports Books.
Pg. 19-38.

Work Skills For the 21st Century