Stressful Situations Part 1: Understanding Stress

student on laptop seeming to be stressed

Stress. We all experience it. We may even complain about it at school or work. But what is it?

What is Stress?

Stress is your body’s response to sensing danger. The body activates the sympathetic nervous system, more commonly referred to as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, and signals the body to increase heart rate and respiration rate to increase strength and stamina needed to run or attack. Evolutionary, the ‘fight-or-flight’ response is to protect you from an external source of the threat, such as an animal attack or a natural disaster.

In our modern world, perceived danger comes in physical, mental, or emotional forms. Life keeps us busy as we try to balance the circles of work, school, and home. External threats are still ever-present, but more often than not, perils come from internal sources; however, the human body can’t tell the difference between external or internal threats. Today’s stressors may come in the form of maintaining a social life, handling financial struggles, supporting mental health, and many more. The body detects these concerns as demands or threats, even when your life is not in danger.

Types of Stress

Stress physiologically occurs over a short time. Our body acts quickly and then relaxes after an immediate danger. This response is called acute stress, which lasts a few hours to days. You may recognize acute stress by the feelings of butterflies in the stomach or getting sweaty palms. Contrary to what you may think, this type of stress is helpful and can be considered positive stress or eustress. In bursts, it can be a great way to stay focused, maintain high energy, and meet new challenges head-on.

Sometimes stress lasts longer than an acute response. Let’s use the analogy of the frog in boiling water. Placing a frog in boiling water will activate its ‘fight-or-flight’ response, and it will jump out of the pot. Now, if the frog is placed in room temperature water that slowly heats up, then the frog will adapt to the water temperature until it’s too late to jump out of the pot.

Just like the frog in the slowly warming water, the human body adapts as stress levels build and remain high. As the human body maintains this heightened state of stress over months or years, one can develop chronic stress. The human body doesn’t know when to return to a normal functioning level when the ‘fight-or-flight’ response is always kept in the on position—making it hard to tone down or turn off the stress responses even when we aren’t facing a threat.

Knowing the Symptoms

The symptoms of stress are different for everyone, even though the physiological response of ‘fight-or-flight’ is the same. To help explain, think about riding a roller coaster. Passengers can sit toward the front, middle, or back of the train. No matter where they sit, the ride path will remain the same; however, the passengers may experience and perceive the ride differently. Passengers who enjoy the coaster's thrill may ride the front with their eyes wide open and arms extended above their heads. But, not all passengers may be excited to ride. Person A keeps to the middle of the train. With their stomach churning, they sink into their seat and grip tight. In the same train car as Person A, Person B sits down and begins nervously rambling to themselves while biting their nails.

Each passenger experiences the ride but reacts to it differently, feeling more or less stress and exhibiting different symptoms of stress.. Below are some of the most common symptoms people may experience when feeling stressed. Take note that stress may surface as physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral symptoms.


  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Grinding teeth
  • Muscle tension


  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Loneliness
  • Frustration
  • Loss of control


  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only negative
  • Racing thoughts
  • Constant worry
  • Loss of interest


  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Withdrawing
  • Procrastinating
  • Cope with alcohol or drugs
  • Nervous habits (nail biting or pacing)

Stress Journal

After learning about the different causes and expressions of stress, we can now discuss how to identify your stressors or others’ stressors. As humans, we pay the most attention to our physical symptoms and responses to events; therefore, it may be harder to determine our thoughts and feelings. It may help to examine habits and attitudes toward known stressful events.

To help identify what triggers your stress, try making and keeping a stress journal. Journaling provides a log of stressors in your life and how they affect you.It can also help determine if stressors are temporary events like car wrecks, items integral to personal life such as paying bills, or possibly difficult people like an ex-partner. As you make journal entries, think about the following:

  1. Identify different stressful events and how frequently they are experienced.
  2. Examine the possible or known causes of why the event was stressful.
  3. Take note of your physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral symptoms.
  4. Finally, reflect on how well you handled the level of stress.

Just like taking notes in a lecture, after you have written entries in your stress journal, go back and analyze to take action. Now you can start to prepare and manage your stress successfully.

Tune in for Stress Management Part 2: It’s Time to Relax where we will be discussing techniques you can use to melt the stress away. If you'd like to talk personally about your stress, please sign up for a time to meet with me or another coach. You can learn more about us and reserve a time online at our webpage. Or email us at We’d love to hear from you!



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About The Author

Alexis M.
Certified Peer Educator

Alexis (she/her/s) is an Academic Peer Coach and a recent WSU alumnus with Bachelor's Degrees in Microbiology and Zoology.

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