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Alexander 29. April 2016

What is Stress?

infografic - what is stress

Stress is a syndrome, that was discovered and named by the Austrian-Canadian physician Hans Selye. He described stress as a diverse physiological adaptation to inner and outer influences.

In its first stage stress is a sign of mobilization of the defense forces in our organism. It’s not limited to humans, it can be found in animals and plants as well.

The causes of stress for humans and animals are diverse. One of the most important stressors is social stress. But there also is a multitude of physical triggers like injuries, infections and sickness, operations, pain in general as well as emotional pressure.

Problems within psychosocial relationships are one of the main triggers of anxiety. Even if those threats are only imaginary, the biological reaction remains the same.

The duration and intensity of a stress reaction distinguishes a controllable from an uncontrollable one. Both trigger different stress responses  – a short-term and a long-term stress response.


If our memory can’t offer an immediate strategy for a stressful event, a short term stress response is triggered. Neurons within the associative cortex and the limbic system are activated, which leads to a release of noradrenaline.

This results in a very focused perception and the so-called fight-or-flight response. Heart rate as well as muscles tension rise, pupils become widened, digestion is slowed down, the mouth gets dry. The organism is focused on action and ready for a challenge.

It’s an ancient program, that has already been a life-saver for humanity’s early ancestors when facing threats like enemies or wild animals.

Experiences of recurrent controllable strains can be very beneficial for finding new coping strategies. The brain’s neuronal adaptability is increased and the creation of new connections is possible. 

However, if these strains persist, the positive effects vanish and stress becomes harmful.


In case the short-term response couldn’t solve the current problem, a further chain of biochemical events is initiated.

The activation of the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the adrenal gland eventually lead to a release of cortisol (the “stress-hormone”) and aldosterone.

This amplifies some of the short-term effects even more, such as a rise of blood pressure as well as blood sugar levels. Furthermore, blood-clotting is reduced and the immune system gets suppressed.

Under a long-term exposure to unmanageable stress the body is not only susceptible to infections but also to cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks and several other ailments.

A constant exposure to cortisol can also destabilize and destroy neuronal connections. This effect might enable new beneficial connections, but it can also extinguish existing structures that generated successful coping strategies.

Several scientists also assume a link between stress and cancer but there’s no clear evidence yet. However, an organism can eventually die from stress-related exhaustion.


Like in many areas of life, whether stress is helpful or harmful depends on a good balance. Stress is an part of life. It puts strain onto organisms but also enables them to find solutions.

The sweet spot between damage and challenge depends on the individual resources, but resilience can be improved by physical or mental training likewise.


In this video Kelly McGonigal explains how to make stress your friend.

Read more about coping with everyday stress