What Is Stress? How Does Stress Affect Our Lives?

To live happily in an increasingly fast paced world where obligations are constantly piling on our shoulders, it’s not surprising that everyone in society feels the crushing burden of stress.

However, not all hope is lost as not all stress is detrimental to our well-being. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law in 1908, stress rises in tandem with task performance up until a certain point known as ‘Eustress’ and diminishes past that – resulting in the commonly known ‘stress’ we all inevitably face (Pavlidis et al., 2012).

Hence, this article aims to help readers identify early signs of negative stress and provide healthy stress management techniques to combat it before serious consequences manifest.

What is stress?

According to Ms. Wong Lai Chun, Former Senior Assistant Director at the Samaritans of Singapore & Current Facilitator at FRCS (Foundation of Rotary Clubs Singapore) stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from demanding circumstances, as perceived by an individual. It can either help us overcome challenges or cause detrimental effects on our well-being if not managed properly.

Symptoms of stress

When the psychological stress is too intense and prolonged, it can often result in negative outcomes in the form of behavioral and medical distress (Campbell et al., 1997). Being able to recognize some common stress symptoms is the first step to help us manage them.

However, it is important to note that not all symptoms are a direct manifestation of prolonged stress. The three categories of resulting outcomes are inextricable and may well trigger one another if something happens in one category. For example, when we encounter a medical predicament, it triggers our psychological distress which can result in behavioral distress, compounding on one’s medical distress.

Common stress symptoms include:

Behavioral distress

  • Tobacco abuse
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Aggression
  • Dietary extremes
  • Accident prone

Psychological distress

  • Anxiety
  • Burnout
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Family conflicts
  • Sexual dysfunction

Medical distress

  • Coronary heart disease and stroke
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Headache
  • Diabetes

Therefore, we recommend looking out for psychological and medical predicaments as triggers that could lead to behavioral distress as a result of negative coping.

Causes of stress

The circumstances and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors (Segal et al., 2017). We tend to associate stressors with negative affairs such as retrenchment or financial burdens. However, the fact is that it can be caused by anything that imposes high demands on an individual. This can even include positive events like getting married, buying a house or receiving a promotion.

Common external stressors:

  • Significant life changes
  • Work or school
  • Relationship turmoil
  • Financial hardships
  • Hectic and busy schedules
  • Children and family

Other than external factors, we also face internal stress that is self-imposed. For example, worrying excessively about uncertainties or adopting irrational and pessimistic thoughts about life.

Common internal stressors:

  • Pessimism
  • Nihilism
  • Inability to accept uncertainty
  • Inflexible attitude
  • Narrow-mindedness
  • Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism

Lastly, the causes of stress also depend, partly, on our perception of it (Campbell et al., 1997). The concept of stress is highly subjective as what may affect you may not affect someone else; they may even enjoy it. For instance, while some people perform well under pressure, others may break down in the face of overwhelming responsibilities. Hence, not everyone will succumb to such stressful situations given the right skills to cope.

How to overcome them?

There are many combinations of healthy coping mechanisms one can adopt according to whichever they prefer or deem more useful and effective. There are three primary stress management strategies that target surface level stress to deep-rooted afflictions. They are known as the primary, secondary and tertiary prevention strategies (Campbell et al., 1997). However, it is important to note that for both short-term and long-term stress relief comes the chief need to be self-aware of our current state of mind.

Primary prevention: Stressor-directed

Managing personal perceptions of stress

  • Learned optimism
  • Constructive self-talk
  • Transformational coping
    • Psychological withdrawal – isolation and distress avoidance through emotional detachment from a source of stress
    • Selective ignoring – looking for positive aspects in a troublesome situation and anchoring ones’ attention to it.

Managing personal work

  • Avoid overloading on work
  • Gaining social support

Managing lifestyle

  • Enforcing a balance
  • Leisure time
  • Sabbaticals

Secondary prevention: Response-directed

Relaxation training

  • Meditation
  • Spirituality and faith

Emotional outlets

  • Talking with others
  • Writing it out
  • Acting it out

Physical fitness

  • Aerobic fitness
  • Muscular flexibility
  • Muscle strength training
  • Nutrition – ensuring a healthy diet and well-balanced meals

Tertiary prevention: Symptom-directed

Psychological counseling and therapy

  • Symptom-specific programs
  • Psychotherapy
  • Behavior therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Counselling

Traumatic event debriefing

  • Medical care
  • Physical therapy

Using these techniques, we can then build our resilience against psychological, medical and behavioral stress.

To conclude, not all stress is detrimental to our well-being and neither can we avoid stress. Rather, it is about keeping our stress levels at bay through such stress management techniques that will allow us to lead a high-quality, beneficial life. If you would like to learn more on how you can successfully implement such strategies in your life, do sign up for our course: Partnering Stress.


Campbell, J., Quick, J. D., Nelson, D. L., & Hurrell, J. J. (1997). Preventive stress management in organizations. American Psychological Association.

Pavlidis, I., Tsiamyrtzis, P., Shastri, D., Wesley, A., Zhou, Y., Lindner, P., Buddharaju, P., Joseph, R., Mandapati, A., Dunkin, B., & Bass, B. (2012). Fast by Nature – How Stress Patterns Define Human Experience and Performance in Dexterous Tasks. Scientific Reports, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep00305

Segal, J., Segal, R., & Robinson, L. (2017, December 31). Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes: Improving Your Ability to Handle Stress. Helpguide.Org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-symptoms-signs-and-causes.htm

Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18(5), 459–482. SMU Research Libraries. https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.920180503

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